TORONTO – Dr. Shaf Keshavjee was on edge as he scanned Toronto’s dark skyline, craning his neck to see a drone zooming toward the downtown rooftop where he was standing.
The drone was only making a short trip, about six minutes, from Toronto Western Hospital to Toronto General Hospital, but the University Health Network chief surgeon knew that its payload would make the trip historic and time was of the essence.
Housed inside a lightweight carbon fiber container and suspended from an Unither Bioelectronique drone were a pair of lungs intended for Keshavjee’s patient, a male engineer who will be operated on that last Saturday in September.
“Seeing him coming over the tall buildings was a very moving moment,” Keshavjee recalled. “I certainly breathed a sigh of relief, when it landed and I could … see that everything was fine.”
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Him and Bromont, Que. Bioengineering firm Unither Bioelectronique believes the trip was the first time the lungs took flight using an unmanned drone, but they are convinced the method will become the norm in a race to warm up organs in the sky.
The first to complete the feat was the University of Maryland Medical Center in Baltimore, when a kidney delivered by a drone was transplanted in 2019. Since then, MissionGo and the Nevada Donor Network have sent corneas in a five-minute flight and a kidney in a 25 minute flight. One minute of travel and in May, a pancreas rose to the skies of Minnesota.
“It is very similar to the first plane flight. That wasn’t very far, but it really opened the door to what air travel is today, ”Keshavjee said.
While transporting organs with drones may seem like a lofty ambition, doctors and companies believe the technology is crucial to improving outcomes for Canadians with organ disease.
Last year 2,622 Canadians received transplants, 4,129 were on waiting lists and 276 died before an organ was available.
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Unither Bioelectronique’s parent company, United Therapeutics, has decided to reduce that waiting list since Martine Rothblatt, co-founder of Sirius Satellite Radio, started the company in 1996 after her daughter was diagnosed with pulmonary arterial hypertension.
United developed a life-saving drug and then turned its attention to xenotransplantation, which uses genetically engineered pig hearts and kidneys in human transplantation, and regenerative medicine, which includes creating pig lung scaffolds that can be populate with cells to make an Organ.
The company is also studying 3D printing of organs with the patient’s own cells to reduce rejections and has built facilities in Maryland and Florida to perform ex vivo lung perfusions, a technique that Keshavjee invented to restore and repair damaged lungs in patients. donors.
Sadly, the world lacks organ donors, and faster deliveries mean that fragile and temperature-sensitive organs are less likely to deteriorate and transplants are more likely to last.
The lungs are particularly challenging. They were one of the last organs to be successfully transplanted into humans in 1983 in Toronto, and 80 percent of those offered for donation are unusable because they don’t meet oxygenation, X-ray or function standards.
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Drone and biotech companies are more determined than ever to cut that waste and inefficiency. Aside from Unither Bioelectronique and MissionGo, US companies AD Airlines and AlarisPro Transport and China’s EHang are working to make organ drone flights common.
Mikael Cardinal, vice president of organ administration systems program management at Unither Bioelectronique, agreed that rivals can be empowering, but he knows his collective goal is not easy.
“It takes courage to be the first to do something like this … but that courage must come with the highest level of security,” he said.
His team prepared for the Toronto flight for 18 months. Before being cleared to fly the drone in a crowded area, they designed a container to withstand changes in elevation, barometric pressure, vibrations, and other jarring events.
There were practice flights loaded with simulated packages that simulated lungs and even drop tests for the drone and the final container, which were equipped with a parachute and an advanced GPS system.
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Rothblatt selected Toronto General Hospital because it was the first to successfully complete a lung and double lung transplant.
“I felt that the karma of the universe would be fine if the first drone transplant also took place at Toronto General Hospital,” said Rothblatt, who recently received Canadian citizenship.
Keshavjee was eager to participate and had several patients hoping to be the beneficiaries. He chose a drone enthusiast, whose recovery is going well.
But his work and that of United are far from over. The company’s website shows that it has 14 health projects underway, with many expecting short- or short-term results.
“There are so many problems in the world like climate change, war, endless problems,” Rothblatt said.
“But being able to wake up every morning and just smile and say, ‘wow, another life was saved that day’ … It gives me a sense of fulfillment.”
© 2021 The Canadian Press