Drone used to transport human kidney from airport in Las Vegas, Nevada


MissionGO conducts test flights of the unmanned aerial system (UAS) in the Nevada desert. The tests aim to prove the viability of unmanned aircraft in the organ transplantation chain. (Photo: Photographika,Inc. / Sammy Vassilev)

Corrections & Clarifications: An earlier version of this article misstated the April 2019 drone flight course and destination, from the Living Legacy Foundation to the University of Maryland Medical Center in downtown Baltimore.

Drones are used today for a variety of tasks – delivering small express packages, assisting in search and rescue operations and capturing stunning aerial views views, to name just a few. 

Get ready to add one more to the growing list: human organ transit.

Researchers at MissionGO, a provider of unmanned aviation solutions, and the Nevada Donor Network, an organ procurement organization, announced last week two successful test flights carrying a human organ and tissue via drones in Las Vegas.

The first flight on Sept. 17 transported research corneas from one hospital to another about 2½ miles away. On the same day, a second flight delivered research kidneys 10 miles, from an airport to a location outside a small town in the Las Vegas desert.

It marked the longest organ delivery flight in drone history, surpassing the distance of a historic April 2019 flight, when staff now with the MissionGO team transported a kidney from the Living Legacy Foundation in west Baltimore to the University of Maryland Medical Center downtown. 

Although the Las Vegas kidney was for research purposes only, scientists who took biopsies before and after the flight concluded there were no changes to the tissue architecture and cell viability.

“These flights are an exciting step forward,” said Anthony Pucciarella, MissionGO president.

Organs are usually transported via commercial aircraft, but the coronavirus pandemic has drastically reduced the number of flights available. United Airlines and American Airlines have slashed the number of their September flights nearly in half, and Southwest Airlines has cut 25%.

Dr. Matthew Cooper, director of kidney and pancreas transplantation at Medstar Georgetown Transplant Institute and vice president of the United Network for Organ Sharing (UNOS), says organs are discarded if no flights are available to transport them before they become nonviable. 

A kidney can survive outside the body for 36 to 48 hours after it has been recovered, according to the federal Health Resources and Services Administration.

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“You can think about (drones) being pretty revolutionary in breaking down one of the obstacles to increasing the number of organs utilized and decreasing discards,” said Cooper, who is also on the National Kidney Foundation board of directors.

A study published in August 2019 in the journal JAMA Internal Medicine found the United States discards about 3,500 kidneys a year. Meanwhile, nearly 100,000 Americans are on the waiting list for a kidney transplant, and about 12 people die each day, according to the National Kidney Foundation.

Drones also could shorten transportation time, decreasing the time an organ is outside the body and improving chances of function after transplant. Hours of traffic in a metropolitan area could be reduced to minutes via drone.

Cooper said unmanned aircraft not only could save the lives of recipients but also surgeons, who have died in plane or helicopter crashes on their way to retrieve an organ. In 2007, a transplant team of six University of Michigan Health System employees died after their jet crashed into Lake Michigan.

MissionGO conducts test flights of the unmanned aerial system (UAS) in the Nevada desert. The tests aim to prove the viability of unmanned aircraft in the organ transplantation chain. (Photo: Photographika,Inc. / Sammy Vassilev)

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There were some limitations to the recent Las Vegas test drone. Ryan Henderson, lead UAS pilot for MissionGO, said the aircraft could hold only about 22 pounds,limiting the amount of ice the team would usually pack for a commercial flight.

But Henderson said researchers are exploring larger aircrafts to transport heavier cargo to include more ice, multiple organs and medical devices for organ preservation.

Sister company MediGO also is working to include GPS software that monitors the quality of the trip and the organ from the hospital’s operating room to the transplant center, according to the company’s general manager, Chetan Paydenkar.

Joe Ferreira, CEO and president of the Nevada Donor Program, says hundreds of flights are still needed to test the reliability and safety of drone delivery, but he’s optimistic the technology could be the future of organ transportation.

“Our ecosystem is a complex one. … There’s a number of things you have to prove to be able to ensure that it’s safe, effective and reliable,” Ferreira said. “We’re in the beginning stages of providing this mode of transport on behalf of the heroic donors and their courageous families.”

Follow Adrianna Rodriguez on Twitter: @AdriannaUSAT. 

Health and patient safety coverage at USA TODAY is made possible in part by a grant from the Masimo Foundation for Ethics, Innovation and Competition in Healthcare. The Masimo Foundation does not provide editorial input.


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