In a first case and a rare achievement, a custom-made drone of the size of a washing machine flew a kidney to a transplant patient in Baltimore on April 19.
The kidney was airlifted by a drone in southwestern Baltimore to a hospital close by where it was immediately transplanted into an extremely ill patient.
“I feel very fortunate, especially after watching so many people pass being on dialysis,” Trina Glipsy, 44, the recipient told the New York Times.
Glipsy, a mother of three was on dialysis for eight years. “I’m seeing a lot of people die and I’m like, ‘It’s taking so long, it might not happen for me either,” she said.
The rare achievement that experts said would not be the last one, was the result of a three-year partnership among multiple people—experts at the university and the Living Legacy Foundation (LLF) of Maryland.
According to its website, the Living Legacy Foundation of Maryland is a Baltimore-based nonprofit working to save lives through organ and tissue donation.
“As a result of the outstanding collaboration among surgeons, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), engineers, organ procurement specialists, pilots, nurses and, ultimately, the patient, we were able to make a pioneering breakthrough in transplantation,” Joseph R. Scalea, a transplant surgeon and the leader of the team of surgeons said in a statement.
Dr. Scalea’s team was the first to carry saline, blood tubes, and other materials to the hospital helipad.
Drones Can Cut Time
The hospital statement said a drone supported transport system may “speed up organ delivery times, expand access to more organs, enhance safety, and ultimately improve patient outcomes.”
In Glipsy’s case, the night journey of 2.8 miles to the University of Maryland School of Medicine took 10 minutes, reported NBC News.
Scalea told The New York Times (NYT) that an organ loses health with every passing minute after it is removed. He mentioned a transplant case where a kidney took 29 hours to reach his hospital from Alabama.
“Had I put that in, at nine hours, the patient would probably have another several years of life,” Scalea told NYT. “Why can’t we get that right?”
The experts mentioned that the delivery of the organ is the most critical among the many challenges of organ transplant.
“We are very time sensitive. We need to be able to work with helicopter services, charter flight services, and ground transportation to make sure to get our teams to a donor case and make the gifted organ available to a recipient,” said Charlie Alexander, CEO of The LLF.
Glipsy was discharged from hospital on Wednesday after a successful transplant procedure. “This whole thing is amazing. Years ago, this was not something that you would think about,” she said in the statement.
In a worldwide first, a drone delivered a donated kidney to a patient. “It’s like Uber for organs,” the project lead said. https://t.co/DX1GXtJTav
— NYT Science (@NYTScience) May 4, 2019
The experts said that the case demonstrates an engineering breakthrough and many technological firsts as well.
“This history-making flight not only represents a breakthrough from a technological point of view but provides an exemplary demonstration of how engineering expertise and ingenuity ultimately serve human needs—in this case, the need to improve the reliability and efficiency of organ delivery to hospitals conducting transplant surgery,” said Darryll J. Pines, dean of the A. James Clark School of Engineering and the Nariman Farvardin professor of Aerospace Engineering.
The drone used to carry a kidney for Glipsy also had a parachute recovery system in case it met with a hurdle and was monitored by two pilots on the ground.
Scalea told NYT that the drone went through 44 test flights and 700 hours of the journey before being sent on the final drive.
“As astonishing as this breakthrough is from a purely engineering point of view, there’s a larger purpose at stake. It’s ultimately not about the technology; it’s about enhancing human life,” Pines said in the statement.