New research could have an "incredible" impact on the numbers of people being saved through the organ donor system, experts claim.
As demand for organ transplants continues to outstrip supply, a team of scientists from the University of Sunderland are hopeful they may have found a way to expand the donor pool.
A potential source of organs is from donors who have suffered heart attacks. In such cases organs are starved of oxygen and damage can occur making them unsuitable for transplantation.
But work to preserve these organs is taking place at Sunderland where research has shown that by rapidly cooling the kidneys you minimise the damage and preserve organs.
This research has led to the development of new medical devices to allow the rapid cooling of the organs, which have been approved by the NHS and are now used in clinical practice.
With three people dying every day while waiting for an organ, the news this week -- in National Transplant Week (July 5-11) -- could give hope to thousands of UK transplant patients.
The university's biomedical sciences department has been collaborating with Professor David Talbot, a visiting Professor at the University of Sunderland and a consultant transplant surgeon at Newcastle's Freeman Hospital, and an early pioneer of this research.
Dr Noel Carter, senior pharmacy lecturer in the Faculty of Applied Sciences and is part of the research group, said: "The primary aim of our research is to expand the donor pool. If we can achieve this then the benefits will be incredible.
"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."
Historically most donors are from either "living donors" such as family members or 'heart beating donors', where a patient is declared brain dead following an injury.
But the university research group has been focusing on 'non-heart beating donors', these are cases where patients have suffered a heart attack either in intensive care, Accident & Emergency or outside the hospital environment, and there has been an extended period of time in which the body is warm and there is no oxygen being supplied to the organs.
Dr Carter said: "Our research focuses on minimising 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 minimise 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."
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.
Further research is due to take place at the university, as two Masters students test a warm oxygenated approach -- instead of cooling the organs, warm fluid with oxygen is pumped through them to prevent tissue damage prior to transplantation.
The biomedical science team is also collaborating with a German pharmaceuticals company to set up human clinical study to assess the use of an anti-inflammatory drug to supplement the perfusate.
Dr Carter said: "Adding drugs to the perfusates is just another tool to help preserve the organs, and is the research of another one of our PhD students."
Much of the funding for the research has come though the Northern Counties Kidney Research Fund, a local charity funding kidney transplant research.
Dr Carter added: "All this research is vitally important, but ultimately the decision always comes down to consent from the family in order for these organs to be used.
"So the more we can promote transplantation in general, the more likely people will give their consent."
This, and other types of applied research, are expected to grow considerably with the opening later this year of the University of Sunderland's new £7.5m sciences complex.
The new facility, which opens in December, will deliver research with 'real world' impact -- research that quickly transfers from the laboratory into the public domain, be it new drugs and therapies, improved health practices or benefits to the environment.
The university will work closely with businesses and organisations in the health sector to allow them access to leading science experts and some of the most up-to-date facilities in the UK.
The theme of National Transplant Week, which runs until Sunday, is about taking time to have a 'Heart to Heart', asking people to find time to sit down with their friends and relatives and talk about the issue.
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