fb-pixel Skip to main content

Coming to Greater Boston: organ-carrying drones

University of Maryland Medical Center staff removed a donor kidney (left) from a drone last month.University of Maryland Medicine

A transplant team in Baltimore, which drew worldwide attention when a drone delivered a lifesaving kidney to its waiting patient, plans to test organ-carrying drones in metropolitan Boston.

New England Donor Services, the agency that manages transplants in the region, has signed an agreement with the surgeon who oversees the Baltimore research project, said Alexandra Glazier, president of the organization.

Dr. Joseph Scalea, a transplant surgeon at the University of Maryland Medical System, will lead the similar effort in Boston, including obtaining Federal Aviation Administration approval for a test flight path and coordinating with public safety and city officials. He has already met with transplant surgeons from hospitals in New England.

Advertisement



Scalea and his team worked for three years, even custom-building a $100,000 drone and undertaking more than a dozen test runs, before transplanting a drone-delivered kidney into a 44-year-old woman last month.

Despite initial skepticism in the transplant community, Scalea said, he pursued the project because organs can take too long to reach waiting patients under the current transport system, which relies on airplanes and ambulances. Airline flights can be delayed or ill-timed, and ambulances must often fight traffic. The longer an organ remains outside the body, the more unstable it becomes and the worse the results for the recipient.

“Why does the patient suffer because United Airlines or Southwest doesn’t take off until the morning?’’ he said. “But that’s the reality.’’

Scalea and Glazier said that if all goes well, a drone could deliver a kidney to a patient in the Boston area within the next one to two years.

Doctors operate Trina, Glispy, on the recipient of a donor kidney delivered by an drone.University of Maryland Medicine

The project is still in the early planning stage. It’s unclear which of the 14 transplant hospitals in New England will participate and how long the flights will be, though the initial test flight is expected to occur over a relatively short distance in Greater Boston.

Advertisement



New England Donor Services, Baltimore’s transplant oversight agency, and two other transplant organizations in the United States are funding Scalea’s project to test drone delivery in their regions, as part of a three-year research grant to his company.

New England Donor Services said the dollar amount is confidential but the agreement includes plans for at least one test flight in Boston.

“We can shorten the time from recovery of the organ to when it’s transplanted, which we know has an impact on the outcome for patients,’’ Glazier said. “That is what we are doing this all for — to save more lives.’’

Scalea’s vision is to create a network of drones that routinely deliver organs and that would be less expensive and more predictable than the current system. He is starting with kidneys because they are more durable than other organs and already travel without a medical team, unlike hearts, livers, and lungs.

For the Baltimore delivery, Scalea and his team obtained the kidney from the Living Legacy Foundation, the transplant oversight agency, and packed it in a special boxlike container, which they strapped to the drone. They launched the drone from an undisclosed parking lot in West Baltimore. In a video released by the hospital, a member of the team can be seen crossing himself as the drone begins its flight across the city.

Police cars with flashing lights stopped traffic at major intersections as the drone flew overhead.

Advertisement



Pilots on the ground were prepared to override the programmed flight plan in an emergency.

The drone landed at the hospital, which was about 3 miles and 10 minutes away, without a problem. The drone, which flew at 400 feet, included special equipment to monitor the kidney’s temperature, as well as pressure and vibrations.

Those measurements were satisfactory, and Scalea and two other surgeons transplanted the organ into Trina Glispy, a Baltimore nursing assistant who had been waiting years for an organ. The transplant was considered successful, though Glispy has had ups and downs and was briefly readmitted to the hospital. She is now feeling much better, said Bill Seiler, a hospital spokesman.

Trina Glispy waited years for a kidney transplant and is now doing well after her surgery.University of Maryland Medicine

Amazon and other companies have been talking about drone package deliveries for years, but plans have been hindered by drones’ short battery life, federal flight restrictions, and safety concerns.

Scalea acknowledged the challenges, especially when flying a drone over a crowded city like Boston. Finding a way for organs to bypass traffic congestion makes the project appealing. But the density of cars, people, and buildings also raises concerns about drones falling from the sky or dropping packages, issues that will require extensive collaboration with safety officials and public education, he said.

The United Network for Organ Sharing, which oversees transplants in the United States, said a critical shortage of organs persists, despite record-high donations. Last year, 17,567 living and deceased donors gave organs. Even so, there are 113,648 people waiting for transplants, and the vast majority need kidneys. Last year, 3,847 patients died while on the waiting list for a kidney.

Advertisement



Because of the shortage, transplant surgeons are increasingly focused on using every organ possible, even if it means transplanting kidneys once considered too unhealthy, such as those from an older donor or a donor with hepatitis. These are often referred to as “marginal organs,’’ and time is of the essence, Scalea said. Organs are also being transplanted from farther away.

“We have donors coming from virtually every hospital in the country where organs need to be transported to centers and run into transportation issues,’’ said Dr. David Mulligan, chief of transplant surgery at Yale New Haven Hospital and president-elect of the organ-sharing network.

About 1,000 kidneys a year are discarded for various reasons, he said, including because they have spent too long outside the donor’s body. Many kidneys can safely wait 36 hours to be transplanted, though surgeons try to transplant marginal kidneys within 24 hours or sooner, he said.

Mulligan said he supports testing drones to deliver kidneys in New England but certain questions need to be answered before the technology could become widely used, including how bad weather affects flights.

“I would want to make sure we could ensure safety and security and that we wouldn’t have lost packages and that it would not be a major disruption to air traffic,’’ he said.

Dr. James Markmann, chief of transplantation at Massachusetts General Hospital, said that when Scalea spoke to New England surgeons about his project, “they were very enthusiastic and positive. No one said it was crazy,’’ he said.

Advertisement



Markmann said drone-delivered organs won’t solve the donor shortage but could be a more efficient way to get organs to remote hospitals. He said he would be willing to participate in test flights. “I find it fascinating, and it could be a step forward,’’ he said.


Liz Kowalczyk can be reached at kowalczyk@globe.com.