By Scott Simmie, InDro Robotics
In a world first, a set of human lungs has been transported between two hospitals by drone.
It happened in Toronto September 25, with the drone carrying the organs on a six-minute flight between Toronto Western Hospital and Toronto General Hospital. Other organs have been transplanted by drone previously in the US, but it’s believed this is the first drone transport of lungs in the world.
The mission was carried out by Unither Bioélectronique, a Quebec-based subsidiary of United Therapeutics Corporation. The parent company is focussed on cutting-edge medical research, including the 3D printing of human-compatible biological tissue. Unither Bioélectronique, meanwhile, is building a network to be able to deliver organs. Both share a commitment to help save the lives of those awaiting transplant; the following comes from the Unither Bioélectronique website:
“Thousands of patients die very year waiting for an organ transplant due to the severe shortage of donors, and the time-sensitive supply of compatible and useable organs. Supply is simply not meeting the critical level of demand…
“United Therapeutics has a vision to change the fate and lives of these patients. Through innovative techniques in lung manufacturing, including pig-to-human xenotransplantation and advanced 3D bio-printing, and enabled by an integrated delivery network, Unither Bioelectronics has set itself on a course to be both a game-changer and lifesaver for those in need.”
A lot of preparations…
This was not a simple flight; a lot of planning and testing went into getting ready for the big day. In fact, according to a Canadian Press story carried by Global News, preparations took 18 months from beginning to end. Tasks included designing a custom container that would be relatively impervious to changes in barometric pressure (which varies with altitude and weather) and also provide protection from vibrations and minor bumps. This was all before getting regulatory clearance to fly at short notice over a congested urban centre.
Eventually all was done. And when a suitable pair of donor lungs became available, both Unither Bioélectronique and the University Health Network were ready. On October 12, the company released a video outlining the process:
The drone doctor
The University Health Network’s surgeon-in-chief, Dr. Shaf Keshavjee, was deeply involved with the project. In fact, it was Dr. Kehavjee’s patient who would be the recipient of this precious cargo, according to the Canadian Press story. Dr. Keshavjee was waiting on the roof when as the flight took place.
“To see it come over the tall buildings was a very exciting moment,” he told CP reporter Tara Deschamps. “I certainly did breathe a sigh of relief, when it landed and I was able to…see that everything was OK.”
The surgery took place soon after the organs arrived, and the recipient was recovering nicely as of mid-October. He is also, according to the story, a drone enthusiast.
The bigger picture
Using drones to deliver organs is a high-profile mission, and we’re happy to see this has taken place. But the reality – as Unither Bioélectronique points out – is that there’s a tremendous shortage of donor organs. Often, too, organs must be flown far greater distances for those awaiting transplant – routinely between cities and not just across town. Such missions would not be suitable for a general multi-rotor drone, though there are certainly uncrewed fixed-wing aircraft that could be adapted for the job.
This is not in any way to diminish the accomplishment here. But the reality is that drone deliveries of other essential medical supplies, particularly to destinations outside of urban centres, will benefit the greatest number of people. One need look no further than Zipline, which has completed hundreds of thousands of flights carrying critical (and often life-saving) medical supplies in Rwanda, Ghana and elsewhere.
Medical drone deliveries
InDro Robotics has long believed in the use of drones for positive use-cases. That’s why the company has been involved in numerous trials – as well as real-world deliveries – over a period of many years. We have delivered simulated blood products between hospitals in Montreal via drone, using insulated pouches equipped with temperature sensors that would send an alert if the temperature of the sample changed. (Certain blood products become less viable if they are not maintained within precise temperature parameters.)
InDro has also partnered with Canada Post, London Drugs and Country Grocer on trials to securely deliver prescription medications directly from the pharmacy to the end-user. The medications were contained in tamper-proof vials that require a specific code to unlock. Getting critical medications to people quickly – even products like Narcan, which saves lives during opioid overdoses – can save lives. Here’s a look at the joint project InDro carried out back in 2019:
And there’s more…
During the peak of the COVID-19 pandemic, InDro Robotics regularly shuttled COVID test kits and swab samples between an island-based First Nations community and a mainland clinic. This saved the local healthcare providers from manually transporting these by car and ferry – a multi-hour undertaking – meaning they could spend more time helping patients. InDro has also carried out tests in conjunction with the County of Renfrew Paramedic Service, delivering Automated External Defibrillators to the site of 9-1-1 calls involving simulated cardiac events. The drone was able to repeatedly get the life-saving equipment to the site faster than paramedic teams driving emergency vehicles. In these kinds of urgent healthcare crises, minutes – and even seconds – count.
With multiple trials and real-world deliveries under its belt (along with standing approval for Beyond Visual Line of Sight flights and a Cargo delivery license from the Canadian Transportation Agency), InDro Robotics looks forward to regular deliveries of critical medical supplies in the future.
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