A Newcastle woman is the first in the UK to receive a donor heart via a new innovation known as the Heartbox.
Sanjana Kochhar from Newcastle, 29, was the first patient in the UK to receive a donor heart transported through a new method, called the XVIVO Heartbox.
Usually, donor hearts are preserved during transport by being placed in a cold solution and stored in an icebox at around four degrees.
This method preserves the heart for less than four hours and the success of a transplant operation relies heavily on the organ arriving within this short timeframe.
However, up to 20% of donor hearts may not function effectively after transplant, leading to some patients becoming unwell and needing intensive care after surgery.
As part of a European clinical trial, the Institute of Transplantation, based at the Freeman Hospital, is one of three sites in the UK and one of fifteen European sites trialling the XVIVO Heartbox.
The Heartbox is a portable machine with a special pump that is connected to the donor heart. The pump delivers a solution containing oxygen and nutrients to the heart during its journey to the hospital.
As the heart is still and cold, it consumes less oxygen and loses less energy, helping to keep it in better condition.
Professor Stephen Clark, consultant cardiothoracic surgeon at Newcastle Hospitals, said: “During transportation, it is vital that the heart is preserved at a certain temperature so that we have the best chance of a successful transplant.
“The logistics of transporting a heart within a short timeframe are incredibly complex, and unfortunately, in some cases, donor hearts do not function well after transplantation.
“For some of our patients with heart failure, a heart transplant is one of the last remaining treatment options when all others have been unsuccessful.
He added: “We hope this method helps the heart to function better and be able to be stored for longer than is the case now. Such innovations are vital if we are to save our patients lives through heart transplant and give them a longer, better quality of life.
“We are very proud to have been the first unit in the United Kingdom to use this exciting technology and continue our research partnership with several heart transplant units around Europe.”
Ms Kochhar, who was 19 at the time, was at university when she started to experience breathlessness and heart palpitations.
She said: “I wasn’t particularly worried about the symptoms I was experiencing, mainly because I was young and fit, but I thought it would be best to get checked out.
"I saw a nurse at my GP practice who carried out the ECG and was stunned when they told me my heart tracing was ‘grossly’ abnormal."
Ms Kochhar, who now lives in Liverpool but is originally from Newcastle, was referred to the Freeman Hospital for further tests.
She was diagnosed with cardiomyopathy, a term used to describe diseases of the heart muscle where the walls of the heart chamber become stretched, thickened, or stiff. This affects the heart’s ability to pump blood around the body, leads to heart failure and can be life-threatening.
Although Ms Kochhar was managing her symptoms at the time, she was told by her consultant at the Freeman that she would eventually need a heart transplant.
She said: “I think the clinicians were surprised that I was managing my symptoms so well, but I wasn’t under any illusion that the time would come when I needed the transplant.
"I was told that when things started to deteriorate it would happen quickly and time wouldn’t be on my side. And that’s exactly what happened.”
Ms Kochhar suffered multiple organ failure and her condition became so severe that clinicians at the Freeman placed her on the super urgent transplant list.
While waiting for a transplant, Dr Jérôme Jungschleger, cardiothoracic surgeon in heart and lung transplantation at Newcastle Hospitals, told her about a new study that the trust was running and asked if she wanted to take part.
Ms Kochhar said: “Dr Jungschleger told me about the Heartbox study, that Newcastle was one of three centres trialling it in the UK, and that he wanted to retrieve the donor heart and transport it in this new Heartbox.”
“To be honest, I didn’t hesitate about taking part for a moment. Having been through this experience and knowing the lifeline organ donation provides, I wanted to do anything I could to help future patients going through similar situations.”
Her heart transplant took place in winter and was performed by Professor Stephen Clark and his team.
She was the first patient in the UK to receive a heart transplant that used the Heartbox.
Ms Kochhar said: “Despite having had a major operation, I woke up feeling amazing and just had this feeling that I’d been part of something special. I’m eternally grateful for the second chance I’ve been given thanks to the kindness of someone donating their heart.
“I effectively went from being bed bound and unable to dress myself to living life again. The team at the Freeman was amazing – I can’t credit them enough for essentially saving my life.”
Want a quick and expert briefing on the biggest news stories? Listen to our latest podcasts to find out What You Need To Know: