Drone delivers donor kidney to surgeons at US hospital in first flight of its kind

In the first flight of its kind, a custom-made drone delivered a donor kidney to surgeons at a US hospital who then successfully transplanted the organ into a patient with kidney failure.

The landmark flight was a joint effort between transplant physicians and researchers at the University of Maryland School of Medicine (UMSOM) and University of Maryland Medical Center and engineering experts at the University of Maryland, College Park.

“As a result of the outstanding collaboration among surgeons, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), engineers, organ procurement specialists, pilots, nurses and, ultimately, the patient, we were able to make a pioneering breakthrough in transplantation,” said project leader Joseph Scalea, MD, Assistant Professor of Surgery at UMSOM, and one of the surgeons who performed the transplant.

“This was a complex process. We were successful because of the dedication of all of the people involved over a long period of time,” Dr. Scalea added.

The 44-year-old recipient from Baltimore, who has been on dialysis since 2011, said: “This whole thing is amazing. Years ago, this was not something that you would think about.”

According to the United Network for Organ Sharing (UNOS), there were almost 114,000 people in the US on waiting lists for an organ transplant. About 1.5% of deceased donor organ shipments did not make it to their destination while almost four percent of shipments experienced an unanticipated delay of two hours or more.

The use of unmanned aircraft technology for organ delivery could help address some of the safety issues with current transport methods – eliminating many of the human hand-offs and the risk of mishaps.

“Delivering an organ from a donor to a patient is a sacred duty with many moving parts. It is critical that we find ways of doing this better,” said Dr. Scalea.

“There remains a woeful disparity between the number of recipients on the organ transplant waiting list and the total number of transplantable organs. This new technology has the potential to help widen the donor organ pool and access to transplantation.”