New Process for Preserving Lungs Breathes Life into Transplant Candidates

Published September 8, 2021 in Blog

Marsha Freeman isn’t afraid to tell you she’s 48 because every trip around the sun for her is another blessing. Freeman was born with cystic fibrosis, a disease that causes the cells in your body to improperly manage salt, causing sticky mucus buildup in the organs, primarily the lungs. The build up of mucus means decreased lung function and debilitating infections. After growing up with the disease, Freeman got used to the frequent hospitalizations, medication, and treatments. But at age 40, doctors told her a lung transplant was the only remaining option. “They basically said I had had my last lung infection and they gave me approximately six months to live,” she says.

The opportunity to pursue a lung transplant gave Freeman hope that she could improve the quality of her life. About a month after being placed on the waitlist, Freeman got the call and received a brand new set of lungs. “I can’t describe the feeling of being able to take a breath, like a whole big breath,” she says, “or be able to have a conversation and not cough. It was just amazing.” About two years later, Freeman experienced transplant rejection and her quality of life went downhill once again. She received her second lung transplant and now counts every single day as a blessing. “I can’t even acknowledge how grateful I am to my donor’s families who made that completely selfless gift of organ donation,” she says. “Without their decision, I would not be here.”

Research uncovers process to preserve more donor lungs

Freeman’s story underscores the need to get more donor organs to the transplant candidates who need them. And this is especially important with donor lungs. For patients with severe lung disease, a successful lung transplant is the only treatment that can help patients live a longer and better-quality life. The problem is that less than 25% of lungs from brain dead donors are healthy enough for transplant. So researchers at Mid-America Transplant went to work on answering the question, “is there a way to better protect the lungs of brain dead donors so that we can save more for viable transplant candidates?”

The answer was “yes”.

The research team discovered a process to preserve the lungs of brain-dead donors, breathing life into those waiting for transplant. This means the new approach could increase the number of lungs available for transplant candidates with severe lung disease. After using the new process, about one out of three (35%) brain dead donors’ lungs were transplanted, compared with one out of five (20%) from before. The innovative process, which combines existing strategies to save organs for transplant, was created by researchers at Mid-America Transplant’s specialized organ donor care facility.

How the new process differs from the old one

In 2008, the researchers began using the new process, which they called “lung protective management.” The new process didn’t completely reinvent the wheel, but merely combined the following existing strategies:

  • Have a lung specialist monitor how well brain dead donors’ lungs were working
  • Adjusting the ventilator settings, IV fluids and medicines
  • Clearing fluids from the lungs with respiratory treatments
  • Imaging the lungs with procedures like bronchoscopies (where a doctor threads a small, flexible tube with a camera through the breathing tube to examine the lungs)

What were the results of the new process?

What the researchers found with the new process was all good news for transplant candidates. The new process helped save more donor lungs for transplant. In fact, the percent of brain dead donors whose lungs were healthy enough to be transplanted went up after the facility began using the new process (researchers compared the number of donor lungs transplanted at the facility from before the new process from 2001-2007 to after the new process from 2009-2016). Before the new process, 20% of donors’ lungs were transplanted and after the new process was implemented, the percentage of lungs healthy enough for transplant jumped up to 34%. Another unexpected outcome is that researchers also learned that the total number of donor organs that were healthy enough for transplant went up. Through the dedicated research of the Mid-America Transplant team, more lives were saved in the process.

Why research like this saves more lives

The innovative research and commitment on behalf of the Mid-America Transplant research team brings hope for the thousands of people awaiting transplants, just like Freeman. “When you make the decision to donate a loved one’s organs, it doesn’t just affect the person(s) receiving them, it affects their family, their extended family, their friends and even the community in which they live,” she added. “It’s a gift that you can’t even find the words to describe. I was given this gift and I got to live life with love, respect and generosity as a way to give back.”

More people like Freeman need your help. A healthy heartbeat. The chance to walk again. The gift of sight. Donation empowers transplant patients to take back life’s most important moments. Have you added your name to the organ donor registry? By registering as an organ, eye and tissue donor, you can bring hope to patients and families who are holding out for a miracle and bridge the gap between the demand for organ donations and the availability of viable, lifesaving organs from diverse donors. Sign up for the donor registry and increase the chance that patients waiting will get the transplants they need to survive.