A Mumbai-born doctor could well revolutionize the world of organ transplants. Dr Hemant Thatte, a senior cardiovascular surgeon at Harvard University who was born in Dadar and raised in Pune, has worked out a 21-chemical solution that could preserve a donated organ for up to a week before a transplant.
"Preliminary studies have shown that hearts stored in SOMAH solution (as the new preservative is called) for 24 hours can be resuscitated without medicines as against other solutions that allow for only four hours," said Dr Thatte via email. In studies conducted on pigs, the solution has been effective in preserving tissues for up to a week.
Organs retrieved from brain-dead persons are stored for a few hours before being transported to various departments or hospitals for transplant. At present, hearts and lungs need to be transplanted within 4-6 hours of being recovered from a brain-dead donor, the liver within eight hours and kidneys within a little more than 24 hours.
What SOMAH—the Sanskrit name for the elixir of immortality—can do is preserve organs long enough to be transported across a large country or half-way across the globe. "Current technologies require that organs from cadaver donors be transplanted within a small window of 4-6 hours. If the transplant surgery cannot take place within that time, the available organ cannot be used. Moreover, the available organs cannot be transported long-distance for transplant and have to be made available locally. The use of SOMAH expands that small window to seven days,'' he said.
In technical terms, the preservative slows down the process of cell deterioration.
In October 2009, Dr Thatte had published a paper in the medical journal Circulation, comparing SOMAH to a widely-used preservation solution to show how the rate of cell death was lower in the former. This research suggested hearts kept in SOMAH could be stored for up to a week.
Dr Thatte believes Somah's biggest advantage is that it can be used at room temperatures. "If we physicians can maintain an organ in the same energy status it was used to before being retrieved, the organ is in a better state when transplanted. It can get into rhythm sooner," he said.
Dr Thatte has worked in Harvard for more than two decades. Over a decade ago, he synthesized a solution called GALA that could preserve blood vessels used as bypass channels during heart surgeries. GALA is in use across the US and France.
SOMAH is still a year or more away from clinical trial. Experts are, however, sceptical about its week-long claim.
A Canadian doctor, Dr Vivek Rao, from the Toronto General Hospital was quoted in local newspapers as saying, "There are thousands of solutions out there, all of which make the same claims.''
Mumbai-based cardiac surgeon Pawan Kumar said there is immense scope for progress as far as preservation of organs goes. "But we have to wait and see the results first," he said.
What SOMAH promises
* SOMAH, the new preservative that is a mixture of 21 chemicals, has the potential to store the heart (and other organs) for up to 7 days.
* A research paper published in the medical journal Circulation in October 2009 showed cells of organs preserved in SOMAH had a lower rate of death than in another preservation solution