Australian doctors said Friday they have used hearts that had stopped beating in successful transplants, in a world first that could change the way organs are donated.
Until now, doctors have relied on using the still-beating hearts of donors who have been declared brain dead, often placing the recovered organs on ice and rushing them to their recipients.
But Sydney's St Vincent's Hospital and the Victor Chang Cardiac Research Institute have developed a technique which means hearts which had been still for 20 minutes can be resuscitated and transplanted into a patient.
So far three people have received hearts in this way, with two recovering well and the third and most recent recipient still requiring intensive care.
"They are the only three in the world," surgeon Kumud Dhital, who is an associate professor at the University of New South Wales in Sydney, told AFP.
"We know that within a certain period of time the heart, like other organs, can be reanimated, restarted, and only now have we been able to do it in a fashion whereby a heart that has stopped somewhere can be retrieved by the transplant team, put on the machine... and then (surgeons can) transplant it."
The technique involves donor hearts being transferred to a portable machine known as a "heart in a box" in which they were placed in a preservation solution, resuscitated and kept warm.
Professor Peter MacDonald, medical director of the St Vincent's Heart Transplant Unit, said the use of hearts "donated after circulatory death" would make far more available for transplant.
"This breakthrough represents a major inroad to reducing the shortage of donor organs," he said.
Michelle Gribilas, the first patient to receive one of the three hearts, said she was very sick before her operation. "Now I'm a different person altogether," the 57-year-old said. "I feel like I'm 40 years old. I'm very lucky."
The second recipient, Jan Damen, who had the surgery about two weeks ago, said he felt "amazing". "I'm not religious or spiritual but it's a wild thing to get your head around," he said.
Dhital said reanimating hearts using the machine could increase safety for patients because it gave surgeons confidence that the organ was functioning. "I would suggest that in the next five years or so we will be shifting more and more towards machine preservation of hearts," he said.