Doctors bring new life to dead human heart

A breakthrough in heart transplant techniques by researchers in Bern promises to give new hope to cardiac patients on long waiting lists.

This content was published on September 24, 2010 - 13:24
Tim Neville, swissinfo and agencies

A team from Bern University hospital has developed a method to reanimate a human heart as long as 40 minutes after it has stopped beating, even when it has been kept at room temperature.

The researchers, led by Hendrik Tevaearai, have been awarded the annual prize of the European Association for Cardio-Thoracic Surgery in Geneva for doubling the time believed the heart of dead patient can be kept suitable for transplants.

"The trick behind this success is simple," Tevaearai said in an email to "We simply reduced the temperature of the heart [from body temperature at 37-degrees Celsius] to 32 degrees. Why 32 degrees? Because, we think it would be possible and realistic in a clinical scenario to 'cool down' the heart to 32 degrees without being invasive."

Typically, a heart harvested for transplant purposes must be kept beating in a brain-dead patient by infusing oxygen into it until a team of surgeons can arrive to remove the organ. Once extracted, the heart must be packed in ice and whisked away quickly to an awaiting patient.

Doctors have long discussed just how long a heart could be kept alive without oxygen and ice. They generally agree 20 minutes is about the limit. The Bern-based doctors have now shown otherwise.

"It is easy to imagine that after cardiac arrest, not only does the family need some time to manage the situation, but the medical team also needs time to organise the process," Tevaearai said. "Our goal is therefore to prolong [how long a heart can be 'dead'] to gain as much time as possible."

Doing so means more hearts could be considered for transplants, he said.

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