Written by Karen Zraick
A custom-made drone delivered a kidney recently to a Maryland woman who had waited eight years for a lifesaving transplant.
While it was only a short test flight — less than 3 miles in total — the team that created the drone at the University of Maryland says it was a worldwide first and a crucial step in its quest to speed up the delicate and time-sensitive task of delivering donated organs.
The team’s leader, Dr. Joseph R. Scalea, an assistant professor of surgery at the University of Maryland School of Medicine, said he pursued the project after constant frustration over organs taking too long to reach his patients. After organs are removed from a donor, they become less healthy with each passing second. He recalled one case when a kidney from Alabama took 29 hours to reach his hospital.
“Had I put that in at nine hours, the patient would probably have another several years of life,” Scalea said Tuesday. “Why can’t we get that right?”
To carry out the project, Scalea’s team of medical experts worked with colleagues in aviation and engineering at the university, as well as the Living Legacy Foundation of Maryland, which oversees organ donations. He performed the transplant along with two other surgeons at the University of Maryland Medical Center, Dr. Rolf N. Barth and Dr. Talal Al-Qaoud.
The woman who received the kidney, Trina Glispy, a 44-year-old nursing assistant from Baltimore, said she had begun to lose hope before she got a call on April 18, when she learned she had matched with a donor.
Glispy, who has three children, had discovered her kidneys were failing in 2011, when a patient kicked her at work and her leg swelled dramatically. She started on dialysis three times a week, for four hours each time, draining her energy. It became hard to do the physical labor required at her job at a Veterans Affairs hospital, which she had loved.
So she was thrilled and relieved when she got the call, fittingly, during a dialysis session. The surgery went smoothly, and 11 days later, Glispy said she was doing well. She expressed gratitude as she recalled her worst fears during her years of treatment.
“I feel very fortunate, especially after watching so many people pass being on dialysis,” she said. “I’m seeing a lot of people die and I’m like, ‘It’s taking so long, it might not happen for me either.’”
The drone used had backup propellers and motors, dual batteries and a parachute recovery system, to guard against catastrophe if one component encountered a problem 400 feet in the air. Two pilots on the ground monitored it using a wireless network, and were prepared to override the automated flight plan in case of emergency. The drone also had built-in devices to measure temperature, barometric pressure and vibrations, among other indicators.
Scalea called the flight “proof of concept that this broken system can be innovated.” He added that current organ transport is “data-blind,” meaning doctors often cannot see an organ’s progress in transit. The drone allows timely updates on its progress, the way you might track an approaching taxi on your phone.
“We can monitor in real time,” Scalea said. “It’s like Uber for organs.”
The drone flew over 700 hours in 44 test flights before this journey, he added. The exercise allowed the team to overcome logistical and regulatory hurdles involved in transporting a viable organ, and it will now focus on flying “farther and faster,” he said.
Dr. Christopher Marsh, director of the transplant program at Scripps Green Hospital in La Jolla, California, and a member of the American Society of Transplantation, said it was too early to pass judgment on the reliability of delivering organs by drone. But surgeons would be keeping a close eye on developments, he said.
Marsh, who was not affiliated with the test, noted that the technology could be helpful to avoid traffic in big cities.
“We’re entering a new world,” he said. “Things change, so we have to be open to that.”