What the first drone delivery of a kidney means for organ transplant

After revolutionising medicine and first-aid delivery, drones have ventured into critical healthcare, reportedly delivering the kidney needed for transplantation, a first, last month.

According to the University of Maryland Medical Center, the specially designed high-tech drone was equipped to monitor the kidney along its 5km-journey to its recipient, Trina Glispy, a 44-year-old nursing assistant from Baltimore, who had spent eight years on dialysis waiting for transplant.

Although it was a short test flight, the successful delivery of the kidney serves as a crucial step in the quest to speed up the delicate and time-sensitive task of delivering donated organs.

The institute claims that this mode of unmanned delivery, once perfected, can bring about faster and safer organ transport.

Time is of the essence

Doctor Joseph Scalea, an assistant professor of surgery at UoM who was among the team of surgeons that performed the transplantation, called it an impressive feat, adding that drone deliveries could help overcome delays—regardless of short or long distances—that often make a donated organ unviable. After organs are removed from a donor, they become less healthy with each passing second, he explains.

Speaking to The New York Times, he confessed being taken by the project because he wanted to find an alternative, especially after constant frustration over organs taking too long to reach his own patients, 29 hours on one occasion.

In 2017, more than 6,500 candidates died while on the wait list, which makes the prospect of a healthy organ “turning bad” in transit even more unacceptable.

About 1.5% of deceased donor organ shipments in the US failed to reach their destination on time in 2018, while nearly 4% of organ shipments had an unanticipated delay of two or more hours. According to the United Network for Organ Sharing, there were nearly 114,000 people on the waiting list for organ transplants that year.

According to NYT, there are thousands who have been cleared for surgery but are waiting for organ donations this year.

The drone fits right into the scheme of things

After clearance from aviation regulators, the custom-made drone took off on April 19 and flew at a height of 120 metres for about 10 minutes before touching down at its destination.

Scalea told AFP, “The most important part is, we were able to implement drone technology into the current system of transplantation and transportation,” which involve expensive chartered flights or even variable commercial flights.

In this respect, commercial drones are not only faster but also cost much less than $5,000 per flight; that makes transplants a viable option not just for the privileged. It also helps reduce the huge waiting lists of people requiring organ transplants.

The philanthropic side of commercial drones

Scalea, who has founded a company that manages data for organ shipments, likened the system to an Uber-like service that would eventually prove less costly.

In 2014, US-based Zipline founded its delivery system using electronic autonomous aircraft, better known as drones, to transport blood, medicines, and vaccines on demand, to hospitals and health centres across Africa, before expanding to the US. It helps overcome challenges like rough terrain and gaps in infrastructure to dispatch blood bags at a speed of up to 100 kmph.

According to TIME magazine, Zipline has delivered over 4,000 units of blood products to 12 Rwandan hospitals. The company’s drones successfully delivered red blood cells, platelets, and plasma that would otherwise have needed to be transported via treacherously complex roads, which in turn would have led to a loss of precious hours, in the race to save lives.

Robotics entrepreneur and co-founder Keller Rinaudo had addressed the problem of inadequate healthcare at a TED event, explaining how this issue is not restricted to just Rwanda but is prevalent in developing as well as developed nations.

South Asian countries like India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, and Myanmar are highly populated yet are scarcely equipped with the kind of healthcare systems that can provide all their citizens with critical healthcare services.

That said, regulations around drones can sometimes hinder their swift flight or passage over contested zones. In order to ensure its exemption from tedious government red tape, the philanthropic and pedagogic scope of drone technology must be recognised. 

“Everyone on the planet should have access to decent medical care, and we have the technology today to solve that problem,” Rinaudo told the Verge. “If you have instant delivery of hamburgers, you should have instant delivery of medicines.”

With Glispy back on her feet, the same may soon be true for the four-chambered heart.

Prarthana Mitra is a Staff Writer at Qrius

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