How the U's reanimation of dead hearts could revolutionize transplants

It lives.

It lives.

“Actually they’re not totally dead,” Dr. Paul Iaizzo clarifies. “They’re just mostly dead. Kind of like the Princess Bride routine.”

Back in 1997, Iaizzo of the University of Minnesota really wanted to see what sort of side effects certain anesthetics would have on a living, beating heart.

So he found a lab guinea pig, stopped its heart, cooled it down in ice, and then flushed it out with warm, artificial blood. Within seconds, the heart started beating on its own.

Next, he used a defibrillator to shock it into its native rhythm. Voila – it lived for some five to seven hours.

He showed off the reanimated guinea pig heart to his brother-in-law, who happened to work for medical device maker Medtronic. The brother-in-law was ecstatic. But could Iaizzo do the same with larger mammals, he nudged – say, humans?

Over the next 19 years, Iaizzo’s team of researchers reanimated more than 300 pig hearts – and an occasional three to five donated human specimens a year.

“Prior to their work, no one had seen the inside of a beating heart,” says Medtronic spokeswoman Kathleen Janasz. “This new knowledge led to re-written text books and, ultimately, benefits for patients with cardiac issues.”

The hearts literally sit in jars in the U’s Human Heart Library, where academics and industry people can rinse them out, pick them up, photograph them, and model medical devices on them. Iaizzo’s team has also plastinated a bunch of specimens – Bodyworlds style – and compiled a giant collection of videos shot from inside and outside their beating hearts for anybody to access on the web. Half a million people from around the world have peeked in.

Iaizzo compares his work to that of Frankenstein’s lab. One particular scene from the 1974 classic Young Frankenstein holds a special place in his heart – in which the mad scientist is researching how to resurrect the dead and maniacally declares, “This just could work!”

The research could revolutionize organ transplants, Iaizzo says.

Currently, an estimated 70 percent of donated hearts go to waste because medics have only a 4-6 hour window to stop the heart, cut it out, pack it in ice, transport it, and sew it into the recipient. Surgeons conduct about 2,000 successful heart transplants a year in the United States; meanwhile, nearly 4,000 more people die waiting for new ones.

Iaizzo’s lab is testing organ care systems that have shown that if you keep pig hearts within a liter or two of whole blood from the pig donor, it’ll remain viable for 24 hours. If those results are eventually translated to humans, doctors could logistically send hearts across the country before they go bad.