Edmonton surgeons create cyborg tech to better transplant lungs and hearts
An inspirational story he heard as a child, a hot-rod car he loved as young man, and a desire to do something important with his life all helped propel Edmonton transplant surgeon Darren Freed to develop a transformative technology in organ transplantation.
Freed and his team at Tevosol, an Edmonton medical technology company, have built the prototype of a cyborg device that mimics the human body so that lungs can more easily survive outside the human body and be transplanted in excellent condition.
“It’s a robot donor, a machine donor,” says Freed’s partner, healthcare business expert Ron Mills.
The lungs are transplanted out of deceased patients into the cyborg chamber built to replicate what it’s like for lungs inside a healthy human body. There they can last for as long as 24 hours, about three times longer than current transplant technology permits.
If this multi-million dollar research project is successful — and there’s every indication from clinical trials that it will be — every single patient in Canada who is on the waiting list for new lungs and is in danger of dying could get the transplant they need.
The path to this achievement starts with Freed as a 12-year-old boy reading a news story about Baby Fae, the American infant born in 1984 with a diseased heart who underwent surgery, receiving the heart of a baboon. “I thought to myself, ‘I want to do that when I grow up,’ ” Freed says.
The main issue around transplant surgery for several decades now has been a lack of viable organs to transplant. Only three out of 1,000 deaths are in patients who are brain dead but with their other organs still working, the best case for preserving them for a short time for transplant. But out of those three in 1,000, just one in five will have lungs healthy enough to be used.
Freed and his partners, Mills and Dr. Jayan Nagendran, hope to double or triple the numbers for viable lung transplantation.
Freed built the first prototype in his car garage at home in 2015. He did all the coding for the machine, having taught himself the skill when he had to reprogram the computer in his 1988 Pontiac Fiero in order to turbocharge the engine.
Being a tinkerer, a musician, a coder and a surgeon provided Freed the skillset he needed to invent something new. “If you’re going to make a significant breakthrough, you have to be able to cross disciplines,” Freed says.
His stubbornness also helps, he adds: “I’m too dumb to fail. I’m too dumb to figure out when something isn’t working and to give up.”
Freed first tested the device on pig lungs, then on 20 human lungs that had been rejected for transplant because they were too diseased. But on Freed’s machine, which allows for lungs to breathe naturally through pressure changes, these lungs actually improved in quality.
“The lung on the inside of the machine has to love it,” Freed says of the machine. “And the user on the outside of the machine has to love it as well, from all respects.”
The next step is to finish building a more user-friendly, portable and durable product, raise capital for Canada-wide testing, then take the prototype to a Montreal medical show and sell, sell, sell. Each unit will cost about $250,000, with a $12,000 disposable sterile kit for each transplant. In the United States, each transplant now costs $1 to $1.5 million. Mills hopes to have the product on the Canadian market next year and approved in the United States one year later.
In the end, of course, the success of the projects rests on how efficiently and economically the machine saves patients from certain death.
Indeed, death is a subject that came up regularly in my interview with Mills and Freed.
Death is front and centre in transplantation. A dead human is needed for lung donation and it’s desperate and near-death patients who need them.
“We think about death a lot,” Mill said.
“It’s part of life,” Freed said. “This thing called life is a terminal disease. We’re all suffering from it. Think about that. It’s going to come to an end.”
“Jim Morrison said it,” Mills said, then quoted the American singer. “No one here gets out alive.”
What does Dr. Freed himself think about that fact?
“I’m dealing with it, right?” Freed said. “Make a contribution while we’re here. That’s how I think about it. Absolutely.”
On that count, I’d say Freed is most certainly hitting the mark.