A heart, lung, or liver that’s been donated for transplant is among the world’s most precious commodities. Yet many of these life-saving organs arrive at the transplant hospital packed inside the same sort of beer cooler you’d see at a beach on Labor Day.
Not good enough, says Lisa Anderson.
Anderson is the founder of Paragonix Technologies, a Cambridge company that makes high-tech shipping containers for transporting human hearts, lungs, and livers. Her company’s bulbous polystyrene foam cartons come with special receptacles for holding the organs, a cooling system that achieves precise temperature control without the use of ice, and a Bluetooth-connected sensor that enables a transplant team to constantly monitor the organ’s temperature and its exact location.
Cleared for use by the US Food and Drug Administration, the Paragonix SherpaPak system for transporting donor hearts has now been used in more than 2,000 heart transplant cases in the United States and Europe. The company claims that 96 percent of people who’ve received donor hearts shipped in a SherpaPak are still alive one year later, compared with an 89 percent survival rate for those who got hearts packed in ice.
Paragonix also makes specialized carriers for donor lungs and livers, and will soon introduce containers for kidneys and pancreases. The single-use containers cost between $10,000 and $20,000. That’s pricey, but the total cost of a heart transplant can reach $2 million.
“A transplant procedure is a medical masterpiece,” said Anderson, a native of Austria with a doctorate in genetics from Cambridge University, and a former instructor at Harvard Medical School. So she was initially stunned to learn that human organs were handled so carelessly.
Anderson first learned of the problem when she ordered up a human pancreas for her genetics research. It arrived in a cheap insulated box, packed in ice.
“My first reaction was, this is a human organ,” said Anderson. “Some family actually consented to this donation and we’re throwing a pancreas in a cheap ice box?”
Then she really got mad. “The pancreas was half-frozen and it was going to ruin my research results,” Anderson said. She also realized that a half-frozen organ might shorten the life of a transplant recipient. “From that moment on, I was like, you know what? Somebody has to do something about this,” she said.
Anderson started Paragonix in 2010 to attack the problem. The company’s key innovation is a set of packets filled with a special coolant that freezes at a higher temperature than water, ensuring that they can’t chill the organ to the freezing point. But they’re cold enough to keep the organ at a safe temperature for up to 40 hours.
Each Paragonix carrier comes with sealed packages of the coolant, which must be placed in a deep freeze for at least 48 hours before use. These packets can then be wrapped around the receptacle holding the donor organ.
The container has digital thermometers that measure both internal and external temperature. There’s also a Bluetooth radio that relays this data to a smartphone app. Anderson said that hearts, livers, and lungs are usually picked up by members of the transplant team and flown by private jet to the transplant hospital. The members of this team can constantly monitor the temperature of the organ on their smartphones. And since most private jets offer Wi-Fi Internet access in flight, the data can be relayed to surgical teams on the ground.
Dr. David D’Alessandro, a cardiac surgeon at Massachusetts General Hospital who’s done hundreds of heart transplants, says he began working with Anderson a decade ago. He wasn’t always a believer, though.
“The old-fashioned way is probably the way half the country is still doing it, which is to put a heart on ice,” D’Alessandro said. “That’s the way I’d always done it... It always seemed that colder is better.”
But after using Paragonix coolers in about 100 transplant cases, and after studying the research data about patient outcomes, he’s now convinced that the company’s system has proven itself. “This is better than cold storage,” D’Alessandro said. “That’s a realization that I’ve only made about two years ago, and it’s gotten stronger over time.”
Paragonix has begun providing surgical teams who can remove donor organs, pack them up in her company’s containers, and ship them to transplant hospitals. This eliminates the need for transplant surgeons to make the trip themselves.
The idea occurred to Anderson during the COVID pandemic, when it was often impossible for surgeons to fly long distances to pick up organs. Paragonix worked with local surgeons who’d extract the organs and fly them to transplant hospitals on chartered jets. Paragonix has since set up service hubs in Ohio, Florida, and Texas. There, surgical teams under contract to the company can be sent anywhere in the United States to get available organs for delivery to hospitals. Anderson said she hopes to bring the entire operation in-house, by putting full-time surgeons on the payroll.
For Anderson, building a better box was just the beginning.
“First we just gave them the product,” she said. “Now we say, let us do everything.”