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Dr. Shaf Keshavji was filled with nerves as he scanned Toronto’s dark skyline, bowing his neck to watch a drone swirl toward the city’s rooftop on which it was standing.


The drone was only making a short journey – about six minutes – from Toronto Western Hospital to Toronto General Hospital, but the surgeon-in-chief of the University Health Network knew its cargo would make the trip historic and time was of the essence.

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Housed inside a lightweight, carbon fiber container and suspended from the Unither Bioelectronics drone, Keshavji had a set of lungs for the patient, a male engineer, to be operated on on the last Saturday of September.

Keshavji recalled, “It was a very exciting moment to see it from the top of the tall buildings.” “I definitely heaved a sigh of relief when it landed and I was able to … see that everything was fine.”

That and Bromont, Ky. Bioengineering firm Unither Bioelectronics believes the trip was the first time the lungs had taken off using an unmanned drone, but they are convinced that the method could become the norm as a race to heat organs in the sky. Will go

The feat was first accomplished by the University of Maryland Medical Center in Baltimore, when a drone kidney transplant was performed in 2019. Since then, Missiongo and the Nevada Donor Network have sent a cornea on a five-minute flight and a kidney on 25-. Minute travel and in May, a pancreas took to the skies of Minnesota.

Keshavji said, “It’s like the very first airplane flight. It didn’t go very far, but it really opened the door to airplane travel today.”

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While drone transport for organs may seem like a lofty ambition, doctors and businesses believe the technology is critical to improving the outcomes of Canada’s organ diseases.

Last year, 2,622 Canadians received transplants, 4,129 were on the waiting list and 276 died before an organ was available.

Unither Bioelectronics parent company United Therapeutics is determined to reduce that waiting-list since the firm was started in 1996 by Sirius Satellite Radio co-founder Martin Rothblatt after his daughter was diagnosed with pulmonary arterial hypertension. Was.

United developed a drug to save her life and then turned her attention to xenotransplantation, which uses the hearts and kidneys of genetically modified pigs in human transplantation, and regenerative medicine, which involves making pig lung scaffolds. which can be populated with cells. Organ.

The company is also studying 3D printing organs with patient’s own cells to reduce rejection and has built Maryland and Florida facilities to conduct ex-vivo lung perfusion, a technique Keshavji damaged. Invented to restore and repair donor lungs.

There is a shortage of organ donors in the world and rapid deliveries mean that delicate and temperature-sensitive organs are less likely to fail and transplants have better chances of longevity.

The lunges are especially challenging. They were one of the last organs to be successfully transplanted into humans in Toronto in 1983 and 80 percent of those offered for donation are unusable because they do not meet oxygen, X-ray or function standards.

Drone and biotechnology companies are more determined than ever to reduce that expense and inefficiency. In addition to Unither Bioelectronics and MissionGo, US companies AD Airlines and AlarisPro Transport and China’s Ehang are working on making all-organ drone flights common.

Mikel Cardinal, Uniter Bioelectronics’ vice president of program management for organ delivery systems, agreed that rivals may be strong, but knows that their collective goal is not easy.

“It takes courage to be the first to do something like this… but that courage needs to come with the highest standards of safety,” he said.

His team spent 18 months preparing for the Toronto flight. Before they received clearance to fly the drone over a busy area, they designed a container to withstand changes in altitude, barometric pressure, vibration and other shock events.

There were practice flights loaded with dummy packages simulating lungs and there were even drop tests for the final drone and container, which was equipped with a parachute and advanced GPS system.

Rothblatt selected Toronto General Hospital because it was the first to successfully complete a single lung and double lung transplant.

“I thought the karma of the universe would be right if the drone implants were also done for the first time at Toronto General Hospital,” said Rothblatt, who recently obtained Canadian citizenship.

Keshavji was eager to get involved and there were many patients expecting to be recipients. They picked a drone enthusiast whose recovery is going well.

But his and United’s work is not over yet. The company’s website shows that it has 14 health projects underway, many of which are producing expected results in the near or short term.

“There are so many problems in the world like climate change, war, just endless problems,” Rothblatt said.

“But to be able to wake up every morning and just smile and say, ‘Wow, another life saved that day’ … it gives me a sense of fulfillment.”

This report by The Canadian Press was first published in October. 12, 2021.