Looking for a heartbeat outside of the human body

After successful lung transplants through ex-vivo organ preservation, UAlberta team is now working to develop a device to improve heart availability.

Laura Vega - 5 August 2020

Facing the longtime challenge of scarce viable donor organs, a team of University of Alberta researchers is trying to keep hearts ‘alive’ outside of the body for longer.

The team is looking to refine a portable device to preserve human hearts through warm perfusion (circulating blood and mimicking its natural function in the body), while also allowing for more time to assess and repair possible damage. This technology, known as the Ex-Vivo Organ Support System (EVOSS), has already revealed promising outcomes for lung preservation in a clinical trial that resulted in 12 successful lung transplants in 2019. Now the researchers want to tackle the challenges of heart perfusion.

“I've been working on heart perfusion research for close to 10 years,” said Darren Freed, associate professor in the Department of Surgery and one of the principal investigators. “The heart is very challenging to perfuse outside the body and difficult to protect, because it is such a dynamic organ.”

For this project, Freed is working with Gopinath Sutendra (Division of Cardiology), as well as David Nobes and Hyun-Joong Chung from the U of A Faculty of Engineering. The team just received a renewed funding boost through a Canadian Institutes of Health Research (CIHR) Collaborative Health Research Project grant in partnership with the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council (NSERC), for a total of $912,590 between both agencies over the next three years.

In Alberta, only around 15 per cent of hearts offered for transplantation end up being viable for use. Ten per cent of adults in the waiting list for a heart transplant will not survive to receive a heart, and the number is much higher in children and newborns, with a mortality rate of more than 40 per cent.

“It’s a little bit more work to get a heart into a state that is suitable for clinical use, in contrast to the lungs. This funding is going to allow us to refine the device and perfect it to be clinically acceptable for preserving hearts, and get it to the point where we can do transplants with the heart device” explained Freed.

The project also received USD $299,229 in funding from the Enduring Hearts Foundation for neonatal and pediatric heart preservation research.

Once the research has advanced to further stages, the made-in-Alberta device will be developed and tested through spin-off company Tevosol, co-founded by Freed, which is already moving the EVOSS lung device forward into widespread clinical use.

For Freed, one of the main advantages of the funding is the possibility it provides to propel interdisciplinary collaboration at the university and contribute to Alberta’s economic development.

“I think the real win here is that this represents a significant cross-faculty collaboration. This is the type of project that generates strong partnerships, and more effective research as a consequence of these team interactions. It's something that's relatively unique. The additional ‘icing on the cake’ is that the research outputs will go into an Alberta company that's expanding or diversifying the economy and generating jobs within the province.”