Corrections & Clarifications: An earlier version of this article misstated the April 2019 drone flight course and destination, from the Living Legacy Foundation to the University of Maryland Medical Center in downtown Baltimore.
Drones are used today for a variety of tasks – delivering small express packages, assisting in search and rescue operations and capturing stunning aerial views views, to name just a few. Get ready to add one more to the growing list: human organ transit.
Researchers at MissionGO, a provider of unmanned aviation solutions, and the Nevada Donor Network, an organ procurement organization, announced last week two successful test flights carrying a human organ and tissue via drones in Las Vegas.
The first flight on Sept. 17 transported research corneas from one hospital to another about 2½ miles away. On the same day, a second flight delivered research kidneys 10 miles, from an airport to a location outside a small town in the Las Vegas desert.
It marked the longest organ delivery flight in drone history, surpassing the distance of a historic April 2019 flight, when staff now with the MissionGO team transported a kidney from the Living Legacy Foundation in west Baltimore to the University of Maryland Medical Center downtown. Although the Las Vegas kidney was for research purposes only, scientists who took biopsies before and after the flight concluded there were no changes to the tissue architecture and cell viability.
“These flights are an exciting step forward,” said Anthony Pucciarella, MissionGO president.
Organs are usually transported via commercial aircraft, but the coronavirus pandemic has drastically reduced the number of flights available. United Airlines and American Airlines have slashed the number of their September flights nearly in half, and Southwest Airlines has cut 25%. Dr. Matthew Cooper, director of kidney and pancreas transplantation at Medstar Georgetown Transplant Institute and vice president of the United Network for Organ Sharing (UNOS), says organs are discarded if no flights are available to transport them before they become nonviable.
A kidney can survive outside the body for 36 to 48 hours after it has been recovered, according to the federal Health Resources and Services Administration. “You can think about (drones) being pretty revolutionary in breaking down one of the obstacles to increasing the number of organs utilized and decreasing discards,” said Cooper, who is also on the National Kidney Foundation board of directors.