A machine developed by scientists at Oxford University has been used to keep a liver alive outside the human body for the first time. 

The technology, under development since 1994, has already been used successfully in two transplant surgeries as part of a clinical trial at King’s College Hospital. 

Around 700 liver transplants are carried out in the UK every year, but more than 100 patients die whilst waiting for surgery. The machine’s inventors, Professor Constantin Coussios and Professor Peter Friend, believe that the device will eventually double the number of successful liver transplants in the UK to well over 1,000 per year. 

Using current medical techniques human livers can only survive for a maximum of 14 hours by being kept ‘on-ice’. The new machine mimics the processes of the human body by providing the liver with blood, oxygen and nutrients. This increases its lifespan to 24 hours and significantly reduces damage to the organ sustained through oxygen deprivation.   

Professor Friend, director of the Oxford Transplant Centre and one of the founders of OrganOx, a University spin-out created to aid the development of the technology, said, “Transplant surgery is a victim of its own success with far more people needing transplants than there are donor organs available. This device has the potential to change that situation radically. By enabling us to transplant many organs that are unusable with current techniques, this technology could bring benefit to a large number of patients awaiting transplants, many of whom currently die whilst still waiting.” 

Iain Christie, 62, from Torbay, Devon was the first person to receive a transplanted liver kept alive on the device as part of a clinical trial at King’s College Hospital in London. Mr Christie was diagnosed with cirrhosis of the liver in May of last year. He was told that without a transplant he could expect to live between 12-18 months. One month after the surgery he said: “I feel very proud and lucky to have been part of this medical advance. My health is better than it’s been for years and I feel I can go on now instead of thinking that life is finished for me.” A second patient who received a liver using the same technique is also said to be doing well. 

A third-year St Hilda’s medic praised the work of all involved, commenting that: “This is a great example of the many ‘quiet revolutions’ that go on every day in the research institutions throughout the University. This development has the potential to save hundreds of lives around the world and proves that Oxford is still at the cutting-edge of the global medical technology market.” 

OrganOx are now working on commercialising the machine for use in Europe and the United States. The Oxford University team now believe that the technology could be developed for use with other organs, including the lungs, pancreas and kidneys.