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Scientists Build Machine That Keeps Human Livers Functioning outside of the Body for 1 Week

Up until now, livers could only be kept alive for a few hours outside of the body.

Scientists Build Machine That Keeps Human Livers Functioning outside of the Body for 1 Week
Left: a non-perfused liver, Right: a liver treated on the Liver4Life machine USZ

A machine now exists that can keep a human liver alive, and even regenerate itself, outside of the body for an entire week. 

Built by researchers from the University Hospital Zurich, ETH Zurich, Wyss Zurich, and the University of Zurich, the machine is a major breakthrough in transplantation medicine. It may save many lives of patients with liver disease or cancer. 

Until now, livers could only be kept alive for up to 12 hours outside of the body. 

RELATED: RESEARCHERS CREATE MINI-LIVER FROM 3D PRINTER

Novel technology

Using novel perfusion technology, the initial study showcased that six out of ten perfused human livers that were deemed unsuitable for transplant in Europe recovered to their full functionality within one week of being hooked up to the machine. 

Scientists Build Machine That Keeps Human Livers Functioning outside of the Body for 1 Week
A surgeon connects the liver to the perfusion machine, Source: USZ

These livers have yet to be transplanted, but the fact that they can fully recover to be in good enough shape for transplantation is a huge moment in medical history.  

"The success of this unique perfusion system - developed over a four-year period by a group of surgeons, biologists, and engineers - paves the way for many new applications in transplantation and cancer medicine helping patients with no liver grafts available," explained Prof. Pierre-Alain Clavien, Chairman of the Department of Surgery and Transplantation at the University Hospital Zurich.

The machine, known as Liver4Life, to which the liver is attached, mimics body processes such as circulation, blood filtering, and movement. 

Scientists Build Machine That Keeps Human Livers Functioning outside of the Body for 1 Week
Liver4Life machine, Source: Wyss Zurich

The human liver is hooked to tubes in the machine that pumps oxygen-filled blood through it, as well as remove old blood from it. The removed blood then goes through a filtering dialysis system which removes waste — just like our kidneys do. 

The machine keeps the liver at body temperature (37 degrees Celcius/98.6 degrees Fahrenheit), and removes bile from it. 

The liver is kept 'moving' through an artificial diaphragm so it doesn't become damaged by the pressure of lying completely still.

It's an incredible device that has the potential to save many lives. 

The news was published in the journal Nature Biotechnology on January 13. 

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