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Doctors successfully brought a dead heart back to life

Published Dec 3rd, 2019 5:33PM EST
dcd heart
Image: imageBROKER/REX/Shutterstock

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Modern medical techniques allow doctors to replace a faulty organ in a patient’s body with a functional one from a donor. Over the decades, transplants have become safer and the success rate has trended upward. However, many individuals in need of heart transplants find themselves on long waiting lists due to a dearth of suitable donor hearts. Now, a new technique by which a heart from a deceased donor can be brought back to life may offer hope to those stuck in medical limbo.

The Duke University Medical Center successfully used a technique known as warm perfusion to revive a dead heart. The organ, known as a DCD heart (DCD stands for donation after circulatory death), was implanted into a patient in a successful procedure.

The waitlist for a heart transplant is incredibly long due to the nature of the organ. Typically, a heart has to be harvested from a living person, and that means donations have historically come from a very small pool of donors who were declared brain dead but still had a functioning heart.

A heart donation from someone who is already deceased simply isn’t viable, or at least that was the case. Warm perfusion is a process by which a heart from a recently deceased individual is flushed with warm, oxygen-rich blood, giving it a new lease on life and preserving it for transplant for several hours after it would typically have expired.

“This procedure has the potential to expand the donor pool by up to 30 percent,” Jacob Schroder, M.D., the doctor at Duke who performed the procedure, explains. “Increasing the number of donated hearts would decrease the wait time and the number of deaths that occur while people are waiting.”

This is the first time the procedure has been performed in the United States, and the patient who received the revived heart is reportedly in recovery.