You can order just about anything online and track it every step of the way until it reaches your doorstep thanks to modern logistics and technology. Now, those same technologies are being applied to kidney transplants to speed the process and enable more transplants.
It currently takes on average about 18 to 20 hours to get a kidney from the donor to the transplant patient, explained Joseph Scalea, MD, assistant professor of surgery at the University of Maryland Medical Center in Baltimore. During that time the organ is chilled and kept in a solution to protect it from injury, but each hour it spends this way increases the risk of poor outcomes like delayed graft function after transplant or failure of the transplanted organ.
“You can get a pizza on-demand and figure out exactly when it’s going to arrive at your house,” Scalea said. “For life-saving organs, nah, that takes 20 hours and you have no idea when it’s going to happen.”
But Scalea and his colleagues aim to change that by enabling “on demand” delivery of donor kidneys using drones and other technology. In April 2019, he and his team celebrated the first transplantation of a kidney delivered by an unmanned drone. It’s just the first step for drone-facilitated delivery. More testing of better, larger, and faster drones lies ahead before this technology will be widely available. But Scalea is hopeful.
“If we can make a more efficient system, I think we could do more transplants,” he said.
Scalea is not alone in his effort to leverage technology to streamline kidney transplants. Donor kidneys are now labeled and tracked using a United Parcel Service (UPS)-like bar-code system. And the technology team at the United Network for Organ Sharing (UNOS) has two pilot projects underway that could expedite the process of matching a donor kidney with a patient in need of a transplant.
Ponticelli CE. The impact of cold ischemia time on renal transplant outcome. Kidney International 2015; 87:272–275. https://www.kidney-international.org/article/S0085-2538(15)30070-3/fulltext
Organ Procurement and Transplantation Network. Standardize organ coding and tracking system. https://optn.transplant.hrsa.gov/governance/public-comment/standardize-organ-coding-and-tracking-system/