Lungs in a box: Organ Care System is a game-changer for transplant surgery

- Across the nation, there are nearly 1,500 people waiting for a life-saving lung transplant.

Seven people on that list are in Arizona.

The good news for those patients: Phoenix is home to one of the top-ranked lung transplant programs in the country -- the Norton Thoracic Institute at St. Joseph's Hospital.

It's one of the few hospitals selected to test a new piece of equipment and it's proving to be a game changer.

"Everything changes. I was a very active guy, doing the yard work, being the husband, and suddenly, I basically could sit and she took care of me. And that was our life," said Prescott resident Jason Ohler.

Ohler described how his life changed dramatically in March, 2014 when he found out he had scar tissue growing in both lungs -- a fatal disease known as pulmonary fibrosis.

"They zapped my chest just to see if they could see anything and my doctor said to me, 'I'm surprised you can breathe.'"

Ohler, a professor, author and public speaker, says his health was going downhill -- fast.

"Before I knew it, I was sitting around, unable to pick up a pencil if I dropped it because I didn't have the oxygen to do so."

The only option: a double lung transplant. He was put on the transplant list at St. Joseph's Hospital in Phoenix and in March, 2015, he found out he was getting a new set of lungs. But this was no ordinary transplant. Ohler was to be part of a clinical trial using a device called the Organ Care System, also known as "Lungs in a Box."

"Boy, I'll tell you.. you take the lungs in the box element out of my equation and I could well be dead," said Ohler.

Dr. Michael Smith is the lung transplant surgical director at St. Joseph's -- one of only a handful of hospitals across the country chosen to take part in the Lung in a Box trial.

"We really had no problem getting our patients to consent to this technology. Because to them, it just made sense," said Smith.

The device is made by Transmedics and it works by keeping the lungs essentially "alive" while they're transported from the donor to the recipient. With blood and oxygen flowing through them at body temperature so they can "breathe" outside the body.

"And so it's almost like the lungs are still in the donor or the recipient," said Smith.

Up until now, donor organs have been packed on ice during the transplant process, giving doctors only about five to ten hours maximum to get the organ to the recipient -- a race against the clock.

"In the old system, you put these lungs that you knew were good in the donor on ice and it's like a black box because they're sitting there on ice for a few hours and when you take them out, you just hope that they work well. But you're not really sure. Whereas with this device, you're absolutely certain that they are working all the way up to the time of transplantation," said Smith.

And the device allows the transplant team to transport the lungs in a box much farther distances by ground or by air because time is no longer critical in the process.

"This will allow us to have a really sick patient who may be waiting in the hospital for lungs and dying to go as far as the east coast or Hawaii to get new lungs for them. Whereas otherwise we just wouldn't even consider anything like that," said Smith.

Ohler's wife took a photo of him a few months after the transplant as he threw away the oxygen tubes that had been his lifeline before the operation. He has no doubt the technology and the transplant team at St. Joseph's literally saved his life.

"I was down for the count. My brothers actually showed up to say goodbye to me in Phoenix and while they were there, I actually got the call that the lungs in a box were on their way," he said.

Ohler was one of 228 patients at St. Joseph's to get their new lungs with the device during the clinical trial. Even though it was a success, it is still waiting to be approved by the FDA.

"I can't imagine why they wouldn't do it. It's proven. It's proven in Europe. It's certainly proven every time they use it in the United States. It does nothing except improve the process," he said.

So for now, until the device gets FDA clearance, it's back to the old method of packing organs on ice.

"We're all keeping our fingers crossed that they see the value in this technology that we do. So I'm hoping it's soon," said Smith.

And Ohler says he is too.

"Oh yeah, it saved my life. There's no question about it."

The company that makes the device told FOX 10 they expect FDA approval sometime next year. That would make it available to hospitals nationwide. They are also in the middle of a clinical trial for a similar device that would be used for heart transplants.


Norton Thoracic Institute
St. Joseph's Hospital
124 W. Thomas Rd., #105
Phoenix, AZ 85013
(602) 406-4000
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