If you want to preserve food, you put it in the fridge, but when it comes to human organs, things get a little more complicated. Researchers at the University of Sunderland in the UK are working on new ways to preserve organs which could dramatically improve the effectiveness of the donor system. The aim is to expand the donor pool by allowing organs that would normally be unsuitable for transplantation – such as those from heart attack victims – to be preserved by rapid cooling.

While medical advances have made organ transplants a life saver for many patients, demand still outstrips supply with an estimated three people dying every day while waiting for an organ in the UK.

One way to improve this scenario is to find ways to preserve organs that are not historically suited to transplantation. In heart attack victims for example, organs are damaged because they are starved of oxygen. Sunderland researchers have shown that by rapidly cooling the kidneys, damage can be minimized and this has led to the to development of new medical cooling devices.

“The primary aim of our research is to expand the donor pool. If we can achieve this then the benefits will be incredible," said Dr Noel Carter, senior pharmacy lecturer in the Faculty of Applied Sciences and part of the research group. “One of our PhD students Alex Navarro, who graduates next week, has based his thesis on the development of new medical devices to allow the rapid cooling of the organs.”

“Our research focuses on minimizing the damage to the tissue and on regenerating it before you get the organ working again and transplant it into a recipient.

“One of our strategies has been to cool the organ as quickly as possible, to minimize damage.

“We use a type of fluid or perfusate to do this, these can be artificial salt solutions, designed specifically to be physiological. We are working with a company called Aquix who have produced a perfusate that could help regenerate the organ before transplantation.”

A human clinical study to assess the use of an anti-inflammatory drug to supplement the perfusate is also planned.

Dr Carter said "non-heart beating" donation is now being taken seriously by the medical profession, as the number of transplants in the UK has remained static over the last 10 years, while the waiting list has risen.

Work is also underway that uses the opposite approach to achieve the same result – instead of cooling, researchers are working on a "warm oxygenated" method where warm fluid with oxygen is pumped through organs to prevent tissue damage.