World’s first: Drone delivers donor kidney for transplantation

Published: Friday, June 7, 2019

MARYLAND, BALTIMORE: In a world’s first, a drone has delivered a donor kidney to surgeons who performed a successful transplantation in a 44-year-old patient with kidney failure. Transplant physicians and researchers at the University of Maryland School of Medicine (UMSOM) and the University of Maryland Medical Center (UMMC) in Baltimore joined aviation and engineering experts at the Unmanned Aircraft Systems (UAS) Test Site, part of the A. James Clark School of Engineering at the University of Maryland, College Park to complete this landmark 2.8 mile, 9.52 minute flight on April 19, 2019, officials said.

Transportation logistics are often the most complicated part of the organ transplant process, typically involving expensive chartered flights, or relying on the variability of commercial flight schedules, and occasionally resulting in an organ left on a plane, or delays that destroy the organ’s viability, according to Dr. Joseph Scalea, Assistant Professor of Surgery at UMSOM, who is the project leader and one of the surgeons who performed the transplant at UMMC.

“There remains a woeful disparity between the number of recipients on the organ transplant waiting list and the total number of transplantable organs. This new technology has the potential to help widen the donor organ pool and access to transplantation,” Dr. Scalea said. “Delivering an organ from a donor to a patient is a sacred duty with many moving parts. It is critical that we find ways of doing this better.”

The researchers theorized that unmanned aircraft technology could help solve some of the transport issues by potentially eliminating many of the human hand-offs and reducing the chance of mishaps.

“When we started this project, I quickly realized there were a number of unmet needs in organ transport,” said Dr. Scalea. “For example, there is currently no way to track an organ’s location and health while in transit. Even in the modern era, human organs are unmonitored during flight. I found this to be unacceptable. Real-time organ monitoring is mission-critical to this experience,” he added. The project also required building a custom unmanned aircraft specifically designed to transport an organ to meet the rigid medical, technical and regulatory demands of carrying an unaccompanied deceased donor organ for human transplant.