A device called ULiSSES preserves a pig's leg and heart. Credit: Bonnie Arbittier / San Antonio Report

In organ donation, time is crucial – both for the recipient and for the donated organ, which must remain viable long enough to be transported and transplanted.

But donated organs have a very short shelf life. A heart or a lung can be kept viable for transplantation for only six hours, while a pancreas or liver might remain viable for up to 12 hours.

A revolutionary organ-saving device developed at UT Health San Antonio could change that, extending the life of a recovered organ to at least 24 hours and, in some cases, up to a week, according to Leonid Bunegin, associate professor of anesthesiology who has worked on the device for more than 30 years.

“Currently, organs are transported in an ice chest and there is a race to get it where it needs to be because, with each second that passes, the organ deteriorates because it is not getting oxygen, so the tissue begins to die,” Bunegin said. “But the device [we] created uses nutrient-rich solution and oxygen to keep the organ healthier for longer.”

Using no mechanical pumps, motors, or batteries, Bunegin and his team developed a cylindrical device called ULiSSES, which utilizes gas pressure to circulate the nutrient-rich solution through the blood vessels, adding the oxygen needed to keep the organ alive longer. The preservation cylinder comes in varied sizes to accommodate various organs and limbs for at least 24 hours.

“We have started researching how the device can save limbs that are lost during a motor vehicle accident, industrial accident, or, more importantly, those lost during combat operations,” Bunegin said. “Often patients who have these experiences take several hours or even days to recover. In a combat zone, it might take hours or days to get to a facility to have an operation.”

Leonid Bunegin, UT Health San Antonio associate professor of anesthesiology Credit: Bonnie Arbittier / San Antonio Report

More than 20 people die in the United States every day due to the lack of available organs for transplant, according to Donate Life Texas, the State’s official organ and tissue donor registry.

Close to 11,000 people in Texas are waiting on a life-saving organ transplant, said Clarissa Thompson, senior communications coordinator with the Texas Organ Sharing Alliance (TOSA). “Any innovations that would help us save lives are a positive thing and worth developing and researching.”

In 2018, TOSA had a record year, with 175 organ donors helping to save the lives of 561 individuals in Central and South Texas, Thompson said. “This year we are likely to break that record, but there are still more people who need life-saving organs.”

Bunegin said ULiSSES is expected to save millions of lives, and the team is working with local development company Vascular Perfusion Solutions to commercialize the product for market. They are currently establishing contracts with local hospitals, including Brooke Army Medical Center, to test the device’s capabilities in real-world circumstances. So far, the device has been tested only on animal limbs and organs.

“In addition to preserving the organ, the solution used also works to pull out any bacteria [or] fungi by passing it through a specifically designed filter so that any pathogens are undetectable when the organ is ready for transplant,” Bunegin said. “When a limb gets blown off in combat, it ends up in the dirt and you have a contaminated limb. This device addresses that.”

With funding from the Department of Defense, physicians with BAMC working on animal and human limb preservation will soon use the ULiSSES device to help further research as the developers continue to collect data to submit to the Food and Drug Administration.

“There are many other investigators standing in line wanting to work with us as we continue to test and gather data on this device,” Bunegin said, noting the device has successfully preserved a heart and kidney for 24 hours and colon tissue for more than 48 hours.

“This is just the beginning. We haven’t even started saving lives yet, but the exciting thing is that we know we will,” Bunegin said.

Roseanna Garza reports on health and bioscience for the San Antonio Report.