On April 19, for the first time ever, a donor's kidney was delivered by drone to surgeons at the University of Maryland Medical Center. The kidney was ferried from a hospital about three miles away.
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A major advance
“This major advance in human medicine and transplantation exemplifies two key components of our mission: innovation and collaboration,” said E. Albert Reece, MD, PhD, MBA, Executive Vice President for Medical Affairs, UM Baltimore, and the John Z. and Akiko K. Bowers Distinguished Professor and Dean, University of Maryland School of Medicine.
The kidney was successfully transplanted into a 44-year-old woman from Baltimore with renal failure. The patient had spent eight years on dialysis before the procedure.
“This whole thing is amazing. Years ago, this was not something that you would think about,” said the patient before being discharged a few days later.
The drone was a custom-built model with eight rotors and multiple powertrains to ensure stability. It was equipped with a special apparatus for maintaining and monitoring a viable human organ to ensure that the kidney was kept in the best possible condition.
It also featured a wireless mesh network to control the drone and provide communications for the ground crew. The research team ran many tests before the kidney drone flight, experimenting with transporting saline, blood tubes, and other materials including a healthy, but nonviable, human kidney.
“We had to create a new system that was still within the regulatory structure of the FAA, but also capable of carrying the additional weight of the organ, cameras, and organ tracking, communications, and safety systems over an urban, densely populated area—for a longer distance and with more endurance,” said Matthew Scassero, MPA, director of UMD’s UAS Test Site, part of A. James Clark School of Engineering.
“There’s a tremendous amount of pressure knowing there’s a person waiting for that organ, but it’s also a special privilege to be a part of this critical mission.”
Drones have already been used to deliver medical supplies such as medicines in Ghana and vaccines in Vanuatu but they offer a lot of promise when it comes to delivering organs. Timing is key when dealing with organs as they can survive but a few hours outside the body.
Since drones can function a lot more quickly than other traditional transport methods, they increase the likelihood that the organs will remain viable when reaching their intended destination.
“There remains a woeful disparity between the number of recipients on the organ transplant waiting list and the total number of transplantable organs. This new technology has the potential to help widen the donor organ pool and access to transplantation,” said Joseph Scalea, MD, assistant professor of surgery at UMSOM, project lead, and one of the surgeons who performed the transplant at UMMC.
“Delivering an organ from a donor to a patient is a sacred duty with many moving parts. It is critical that we find ways of doing this better.”