In a first for medical science, two livers have been successfully transplanted into patients following storage and transportation of the organs in a machine that keeps them warm and functioning. It's hoped that the machine, developed at the University of Oxford, could double the number of livers available for transplant at any given time, potentially saving thousands of lives every year.

According to Dr. Les Russell of OrganOx, which commercialized the machine, about a quarter of the 30,000 or so patients awaiting a liver transplant in Europe and the US at any given time will die before a liver becomes available. Though 13,000 transplants are carried out in the two continents each year, 2,000 potentially life-saving livers have to be discarded over the same period due to damage from oxygen deprivation or from the cold – the livers being transported on ice.

More than merely being stored, a liver is connected to the new machine, which circulates oxygenated blood throughout the capillaries – a process known as perfusion. This effectively keeps the liver "alive" and functioning, returning its proper colour and allowing it to produce bile.

By preventing the sorts of damage caused by storage on ice, it's hoped the machine will increase the number of livers available for transplant, and the time for which they are available. It's claimed that the machine could keep a liver working outside of a human body for up to 24 hours. The additional time could also be used to test the liver to increase the chances of a transplant's success.

"Despite all the advances in modern medicine, the fundamentals of liver transplantation have not changed in decades," King's College Director of Transplant Surgery, Professor Nigel Heaton said in a University of Oxford press release. "This is why the device is so exciting. If we can introduce technology like this into everyday practice, it could be a real, bona fide game changer for transplantation as we know it."

The successful procedures were carried out at London's King's College Hospital in February.

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