Despite advances in organ transplantation, the way donor hearts are moved from hospital to hospital remains low-tech: stored on ice and carried in a store-bought cooler.

The University of Michigan Health System is testing a new high-tech heart box that circulates blood from the donor to the heart so that it continues throbbing while in transit.

Conventional methods allow a heart to be viable for around four hours before it has to be discarded. Using the Transmedics Organ Care System (OCS), the heart is kept beating outside the body, warm and pumping even before doctors transplant it.

More donor hearts may be able to be transplanted because of the prolonged time they will be viable outside of the body and the longer distances they will be able to travel.

The OCS Heart system will provide the heart with oxygen and nutrients during transport and keep the donor heart functioning and beating at normal body temperature.

The beating heart also allows surgeons to get a more comprehensive look at the heart before transplant.

"With this method of transplantation, hearts are kept beating, allowing for organs to be transplanted longer distances so that more opportunities may arise for our patients to receive the organs they desperately need," says Francis Pagani, M.D., Ph.D., a cardiac surgeon at the University of Michigan Frankel Cardiovascular Center.

"It has the potential to transform the way we do heart transplantation in this country," he says.

The experimental operation, that's mostly been done in Europe, is now being tested in the United States where 4,000 people are waiting for a new heart.

The University of Michigan is one of 12 centers participating in the EXPAND clinical trial that will test the effectiveness of the new system for donor heart transplantation.

Transplant and organ recovery teams are preparing for Michigan's first case.

Facts about organ donation

  • Every 10 minutes someone is added to the national transplant list
  • On average 21 people die each day while waiting for a transplant
  • One organ donor can save eight lives.
  • Add your name to the Michigan Organ Donor Registry.