In a medical first, an aerial drone quickly and safely transported donor lungs for transplant between two hospitals. The flight took just six minutes and is the first time a lung has been delivered via drone anywhere in the world.
The flight took place on September 25 at around 1 am local time, according to the CBC. The lung, originally at Toronto Western Hospital, was flown to Toronto General Hospital – the site of the first lung transplant in 1983, and double lung transplant in 1986 – where 63-year-old Alain Hodak would become the first person in history to receive a pair of drone-delivered lungs.
This innovation in organ transportation is a real breath of fresh air (pun intended) for transplantations, with the potential to speed up organ transfer from donor to recipient, particularly in urban areas. The minutes saved could be the difference between life and death for patients awaiting transplantation – time is of the essence when it comes to ensuring organs for transplant remain viable in transfer.
Lungs present their own unique challenge, as keeping them sufficiently oxygenated and functional is no mean feat. In fact, 80 percent of donated lungs cannot be used in transplants for this reason, according to the Toronto Star.
“This is a major steppingstone both from an aviation perspective and a healthcare perspective,” Mikaël Cardinal, vice president of program management for organ delivery systems at Unither Bioélectronique, the company responsible for developing the drones, said in a statement.
The pioneering flight took just six minutes, but engineers at Unither Bioélectronique have been working hard preparing for takeoff for 18 months. As the Star reports, the team designed a lightweight carbon fiber container able to withstand changes in elevation, pressure, and vibrations. Test flights were performed using dummy packages, and the container was fitted with a parachute and GPS system before it was declared fit for its journey.
Awaiting the flying lung was Dr Shaf Keshavjee, the surgeon-in-chief with Canada’s University Health Network.
“To see it come over the tall buildings was a very exciting moment,” he told the Star. “I certainly did breathe a sigh of relief, when it landed and I was able to...see that everything was OK.”
The lungs, however, are not the first organ to take to the skies. A kidney was delivered by drone in Baltimore in 2019, while corneas and a pancreas have since made an aerial journey.
The team behind this latest innovation hope that it could pave the way for semi-autonomous organ delivery, improving the availability and effective distribution of organs for transplantation.
“With this unique technology we may one day be able to transport organs with fewer logistical barriers and eliminate the need to transport whole surgical teams in larger aircrafts. Simply put, drones may help organs for transplants get to the people who need them, quicker and in a more cost-effective way,” Unither Bioélectronique write.
They also aim to extend the range of their aircraft, hoping to develop drones that can fly 160 kilometers (100 miles), then 320 kilometers (200 miles). “Ultimately, we plan to have droned aircraft deliver lungs, hearts, and kidneys throughout all of North America,” Martine Rothblatt, CEO of United Therapeutics, the parent company of Unither Bioélectronique, said.