PITTSBURGH (KDKA) — How do you keep donor lungs in the best shape possible for transplant? Local doctors are trying a new strategy.

They want to keep them in as lifelike an environment as possible using a machine that circulates blood at body temperature through the donated organs.

“What we have learned so far is that we can perfuse them safely for six to eight hours,” says UPMC transplant surgeon Dr. Christian Bermudez.

After working 18 years in electrical manufacturing, Gary Cunningham became short of breath from lung stiffness. He would die without a transplant. On March 4, he was the first to get lungs like this at UPMC.

“I asked [my transplant surgeon], have you ever done it? And he said, ‘No, but I’ve seen it.’ And I said, ‘Okay, would you do it if you were me?’ And he said, ‘Absolutely,’” he recounts. “I was all in at that point, especially when he said it could help somebody else, too.”

Ordinarily, lungs are put on ice and flown to its recipient. But once lungs are removed from the body, the tissue can quickly die. Hopes are the lungs stay healthier longer on the machine, with fewer complications at the hookup.

“There’s nothing more disappointing for us to do a perfect operation, taking a great organ that doesn’t work. And we see that five percent of the case,” says Dr. Bermudez.

The unit is about the size of a copying machine. It monitors the pressure in the lungs, the oxygen, the blood counts, the temperature and other information the doctors will need to figure out how good of shape the organ is in.

“The surgeon’s eyes lit up like he hit a ninth inning home run. I mean, he was just amazed. ‘Look at the color!’ It was perfect. The color match was perfect. It was pink, no gray,” says Gary.

This is part of a clinical trial of 10 patients. Five will get a transplant using the machine. Five will get the usual method.

Each year, more than a thousand Americans have a lung transplant.

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Dr. Maria Simbra