Inside a new building on Mayo Clinic’s Jacksonville campus, lungs from organ donors will be kept flushed and ventilated under clear plastic domes as scientists, working against the clock, try to determine if they are suitable for transplantation into patients around the Southeast.
Mayo is collaborating with a biotech company on the project, which aims to tackle a shortage of suitable lungs, which are among the most difficult and delicate of organs to find for transplant. The process, called ex-vivo lung perfusion, keeps donated lungs functional and breathing, long enough for doctors to decide if they will work for patients waiting for a lung transplant.
Under usual circumstances, there is a six-hour window between harvesting the lungs and transplanting them, said Brandi Zofkie, general manager for Lung Bioengineering, a subsidiary of biotech firm United Therapeutics, Mayo’s collaborator on the project.
In that time crunch, many lungs are discarded as being too risky for transplant patients. The ex-vivo lung perfusion process can stretch that to 22 hours, giving scientists a chance to examine and X-ray them outside the donor’s body and perhaps determine that the lungs are indeed suitable for the right patient on the waiting list.
Jorge Mallea, Mayo’s medical director for the facility, noted that there are about 400,000 people with end-stage lung disease; each year, only 2,500 of them get a transplant. Currently, only about 24 percent of donated lungs meet the standards for transplantation.
“The need is very high and the supply is very low,” Mallea said, “so if you could increase that to 30 percent or 40 percent or 50 percent by being able to evaluate those marginal ones, the ones that you have questions about, that would be a great step in where we want to go.”
Zofkie said the Jacksonville lab could perform up to 900 procedures a year. The approved lungs would then be rushed to transplant centers at Mayo and around the Southeast.
The lung center is housed on the first floor of Mayo’s three-story Discovery and Innovation Building, which officially opens Thursday, part of the continuing expansion of the Jacksonville medical center.
The top floor is home to the Life Sciences Incubator, a 25,000-square-foot space for entrepreneurs to develop new health-care products and technology. Charles Bruce, chief innovation officer at Mayo, said he expects to have 20 companies in the incubator by the end of next year, which will combine with the “thought capital” that’s already at the medical complex.
The second floor at the Discovery and Innovation Building will focus on research into cell-based therapy, particularly for cancer care and regenerative medicine. It’s another collaboration between Mayo and United Therapeutics.
Martine Rothblatt, founder of Sirius XM radio, started United Therapeutics in 1996 to try to find a way to save her daughter, who had been diagnosed with a rare and then-fatal lung disease called pulmonary arterial hypertension. The company succeeded, developing drugs to treat those with the disease. More than 20 years after her diagnosis, Rothblatt’s daughter is still alive and works for the company.
Zofkie said the company has another ex-vivo lung perfusion center at its headquarters in Silver Spring, Md., using technology created in Toronto. The company is also researching 3-D printed lungs and using genetically modified lungs from pigs.