11 May 2016

Drones for transplantologists

Heavy drones for lung, liver and kidney delivery

Andrey Vasilkov, Computerra

Very soon, lungs, liver and other organs for transplantation can be ordered with express delivery. Right now, a program is being developed in the United States to send organs by drones. The Chinese aircraft manufacturing holding EHang has already signed a contract with the American firm Lung Biotechnology to work together for the next fifteen years (Chinese firm plans to use drones to deliver artificial organs).

As part of the MOTH (Manufactured Organ Transport Helicopter) program, the biotech firm will receive a thousand modified EHang 184 octacopters. They will perform urgent delivery of organs obtained by xenotransplantology or (in the future) printed on a 3D printer.

A frame from the demo video of EHang Holdings Limited.

Online stores have been trying to send books, medicines and other small goods by drones for a long time, so why not use UAVs to deliver organs? At first glance, this is the expected convergence in the development of modern technologies. However, it is in this story that there are many non-obvious details.

Let's start with Lung Biotechnology, a private firm from Maryland and a wholly owned subsidiary of United Therapeutics Corporation. Having appeared only ten years ago, she became known as the developer of Treprostinil, a drug for the treatment of pulmonary arterial hypertension. This disease is usually severe and leads to heart failure, so it is difficult to overestimate the relevance of such drugs.

EHang-184 on the test site (photo: Darren Quick).

However, the pharmaceutical market dictates its own rules, and while long-term clinical trials are underway, the company temporarily switches to a more profitable niche. Three years later, together with Eli Lilly and Company (the first in the world to release insulin) she creates Tadalafil (an analogue of "Viagra"). Then in 2012, the company returned to Treprostinil and tried to improve its clinical effects by simultaneous inhalation with other components. There is a result, but it is not too impressive.

When conservative therapy is ineffective in primary pulmonary hypertension, there is only one thing left – lung replacement. The problem is that lung transplantation is an extremely complex operation that has only begun to be mastered in the last ten years. The first such operation was performed in Russia in 2006 by surgeons of the 2nd Multidisciplinary Hospital of St. Petersburg. Trials of new donor lung support systems before their transplantation are still ongoing. The video below shows the development of the University of Chicago.

Under the strange name "Pulmonary Biotechnologies" there is another relevant direction – the development of methods for perfusion of donor lungs and their preservation for transplantation. Last year, a partnership with SGI (Synthetic Genomics Inc.) brought the company $ 50 million in investments and the opportunity to apply proprietary cellular engineering technologies. With their help, modified pig embryos are grown, in whose body organs are formed that are more suitable for human transplantation.

Theoretically, Lung Biotechnology can use modified pig lungs to increase their physiological compliance and the level of histocompatibility with the patient's body. Simply put, after cellular modification, they will be better suited to humans and less likely to be rejected after transplantation. In addition to the lungs, it is planned to grow other organs in this cellular pig farm – first of all, kidneys and liver.

Organs for xenotransplantation are served chilled (photo: Chris Maddaloni / Nature).

When 3D printing with living cells becomes a proven technology, xenotransplantation can be abandoned in favor of a more progressive and ethical method. There is progress in this area, but it will take years before the clinical use of 3D printing. So far, the Russian company 3D Bioprinting Solutions has been able to print only an organ construct of the mouse thyroid gland.

Anyway, in the coming years, Lung Biotechnology plans to carry out urgent delivery of organs for transplantation in the United States. It is assumed that routes to the nearest hospitals will be recorded in the memory of drones. The operator will only have to choose a clinic and send the organ with just one click. The only problem is that so far no one has seen the real achievements of an innovative biotech company, and its methods have not been tested by the US Food and Drug Administration.

The story of the EHang 184 multicopter, which was briefly shown at CES 2016, also looks strange. Paired coaxial screws turn a drone with a classic quadcopter circuit into an octocopter. The main emphasis in such a design is on increased reliability and increased lift.

According to the stated characteristics, the EHang 184 can lift a load weighing up to 100 kg, fly for 23 minutes and reach a horizontal flight speed of up to 100 km/h. However, there has not been a single demonstration flight so far. On the web, you can only find a video where a modern version of the drone is present in the frame for a few seconds.

The most important thing is that so far we can only partially talk about its autonomy. The test pilot sits in the cockpit and controls the car, which (maybe) will become a drone only in the foreseeable future. Now the EHang 184 is being taught to fly along a given route in conditions of constant monitoring, and in terms of dimensions and carrying capacity, it just corresponds to a single-seat helicopter.

Suspicions about the absence of an unmanned EHang 184 model today are reinforced by the phrase that Lung Biotechnology will receive a "modified version", and it is not clear even when this will happen – tomorrow or in 15 years.

It seems that the production of organs to order and their delivery by drones in the announcement of the two companies was described only as a tempting prospect for investors. In fact, there is only a modified technology of interspecific transplantation and a certain aircraft occupying an intermediate position between a single-seat helicopter and an unmanned octocopter.

Before launching the innovative Lung Biotechnology service, it is required at least to obtain permission from the FDA, and Ehang – from the FAA. It is not at all a fact that the fifteen years specified in the contract will be enough to finalize technologies and overcome bureaucracy, but I want to believe it. A very interesting prospect opens up.

Portal "Eternal youth" http://vechnayamolodost.ru  11.05.2016

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