With over 113,000 people currently on the waiting list for organs in the United States, it is estimated that as many as 18 people die each day waiting for an organ transplant. Despite these statistics, there remains limitations associated with the current methods used to transport life-saving organs to recipients. In an effort to resolve these frustrations with the current process, physicians at the University of Maryland Medical Center turned to drones.
Traditional Organ Transportation Methods
Once an organ donor and their recipient have been properly matched for an organ transplant, the organ donor’s hospital is responsible for packaging, labelling and transporting the organ to the recipient’s hospital. Traditionally, there are several different transportation methods that can be used to ensure that the correct organ reaches the recipient in optimal condition. Organs can be taken in a car, on commercial airlines, with or without board couriers, or by a charter flight to their final destination.
Risks of Transporting Living Organs
While this transportation process may appear efficient, there are several risks involved in transporting live organs. For example, a delay in travel time can arise as a result of an accident with the transportation vehicle, a delay or cancellation of the flight, traffic or even the driver getting lost on their way to the hospital. Damage of the living organ may also occur as a result of accidental opening of the containers used to hold living organs, as well as unwanted exposure of the container to extreme heat, cold or rain during transportation.
It has been estimated that approximately 1.5% of organs will never make it to their recipient, whereas nearly 4% of organs will experience two or more hours of unexpected travel delays. In addition, it is estimated that about 14% of all donated organs will be discarded for various reasons, one of which is attributed to a reduced quality of the organ.
Developing the Ideal Organ Transport Drone
For over three years, Dr. Joseph Scalea, an assistant professor of surgery at the University of Maryland’s School of Medicine, worked with AiRXOS CEO Ken Stewart to design an ideal drone organ delivery system. In addition to ensuring that their drone remained within the regulatory structure required by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), Scalea and Stewart also needed to create a drone capable of carrying the additional weight of the organ and its cardboard cooler, as well as the various cameras and sensors needed to monitor the organ during its flight. Initial test drives of their model involved transporting saline, blood tubes and other medical materials, including a nonviable human kidney, prior to its official flight on April 25, 2019.
Once the kidney was ready for takeoff, it was flown 2.6 miles from St. Agnes Hospital to the University of Maryland Hospital in downtown Baltimore. Depending on traffic, the drive between these two hospitals can typically take between 15-20 minutes; however, the use of Scalea and Stewart’s drone reduced this travel duration to only 10 minutes. Since travel time can play a significant role in determining the viability of human organs, this time reduction alone was considered an enormous success for the team.
There are currently over 290,000 drones registered by the FAA for commercial uses ranging from law enforcement to disaster management. The victory of this revolutionary organ transplant delivery, which resulted in a successful transplant for the patient, is the first step in creating the fastest, safest and least expensive method for organ transplant delivery. Drone developers are hopeful that this technology will help widen the donor pool for patients to ultimately gain better access to live saving organs.