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Organ Recovery's Miracle On Ice

Slide Show >>

For decades, the de facto standard for transporting donor organs to the transplant hospital was an ice-filled cooler -- the kind designed to carry sandwiches and beer. The organs were kept on ice, and there was no system to monitor or regulate their health. David Kravitz was dismayed to learn this when the donor heart for his father's transplant arrived at the hospital. So the Chicago-area private investor decided to do something about it.

Kravitz formed Organ Recovery Systems, based in Des Plaines, Ill., and assembled a team of engineers to develop a better carrier. The company's first product, an $18,000 kidney transporter called LifePort, was introduced in 2003 and is now used by 35 of the 58 organ-procurement regions in the U.S., or 60% of the market.

COMFORT AND PROTECTION. A breakthrough in design and engineering, LifePort nests innovative technology inside a simple, easy-to-use shell. And you'd never mistake the LifePort for a lunchbox. "We wanted to strongly differentiate the LifePort from an Igloo chest," says Kravitz, referring to a popular brand of food-and-beverage cooler.

"At a glance, users should pick up on the 'wow' factor," he adds. "This was important, of course, for the LifePort as our company's flagship device, but even more important in terms of evoking comfort and protection for the organ."

The main design and engineering problem was to eliminate the separate kidney pump that often accompanies a harvested organ in transport. These pumps are generally so large they take up an entire airplane seat. The LifePort is designed to serve both pumping and transportation needs.

The internal device uses the standard process of hypothermic perfusion that the larger, existing pumps achieved: pumping the kidney with a patented chemical solution to keep it viable. However, ORS's goal was to design a container that could do this continuously from the time of organ donation and throughout the transportation process, to keep the organ alive and in an optimum state.

COOL DESIGN. Surprisingly, the team decided to tackle the outside of the transporter first and then the internal engineering. Kravitz says the power of design was always at the forefront of his mind when he conceived of the kidney transporter: "I wanted to launch a product that had high iconic value as a positioning strategy for the company's brand, but also to evoke an image of high-quality engineering."

He was influenced by the first home heart defibrillators, now distributed by Philips, which feature sleek lines and are user-friendly. "They utilized cool industrial design and were able to create a medical product that no one thought could be made," Kravitz says.

So Kravitz enlisted IDEO, the product-design company responsible for the first at-home defibrillators, to work with ORS on the external characteristics of the LifePort prototype before the ORS engineering staff would figure out how to fit pumping mechanisms inside the container.

LIFE PROBLEMS. ORS presented the designers with a set of problems to solve: How to create a self-contained unit that could pump the organ as well as store it; how to make the unit communicate what was inside; and how to make the unit so user-friendly that it could be transported easily and have clear, intuitive controls.

The design team first took into account the concept of the LifePort as a "life messenger," says IDEO designer Andrew Burroughs. "There's a certain reverence that's intended to be imbued in the device," he says. To meet the deadline of an organ-transportation conference, the designers went from brainstorming sketches to a fully functioning unit in just eight weeks.

For external aesthetics, the design team tossed around ideas about creating a cradle or a nest-like environment for the kidney. "We wanted to convey [that] a piece of living tissue is encased in the box," Burroughs says. The team settled on the metaphor of an egg.

"We thought, the kidney is like a yolk, and the chemical solution is like the egg white," Burroughs explains. Eggs, he adds, are also fragile. That the LifePort evokes an egg is a subtle suggestion for handlers of the device to carry it with care and caution.

ON THE MOVE. To solve the problems of ergonomics and portability, the team made foam models that were weighted to match the projected heft of a functioning LifePort device with a kidney, solution, and pumping equipment inside. Then they enlisted a group of six hospital staff members to test the models and tell them which was the most comfortable to carry in a hurry.

Kravitz took a prototype to his child's school and walked through the hall to see what random reactions he could conjure. "When students started saying, 'Is that an incubator?' I knew it was right," says Kravitz.

To make the unit as easy as possible to use, the design team added a green "control" band around the unit. "All of the interaction points, like the battery door and controls, are located on this green belt," says Burroughs. "The eye is drawn toward it."

PUMP IT UP. When IDEO was close to completing the container design, ORS began to formulate a pumping system that would fit inside. The engineers decided to place the kidney in a tray that would sit on ice. The technical equipment -- monitor, pumps, wiring -- was housed in a separate chamber, with the necessary wiring passing through a small hole to the organ chamber.

In the astonishing time frame of a single weekend, the engineers used a store-bought plastic toolbox that was roughly the same size as the LifePort to test their ideas before incorporating it into IDEO's container.

Patients spend an average three to five years on the waiting list for a kidney, during which time the cost of keeping them on dialysis can reach $70,000, according to the Organ Procurement & Transplant Network. Both the time and expense would be radically cut if there were a larger supply of viable organs available. The LifePort's ability to sustain more kidneys in a transplantable state for a longer amount of time is big step in that direction.

OTHER ORGANS. ORS tackled kidney transportation first, as the demand for kidney transplants is the most urgent. According to the Organ Procurement & Transplantation Network, there are just over 64,000 people on the U.S. waiting list, more than two-thirds of the total 90,000 patients in line for all organ donations. But ORS is now adapting its LifePort design, slightly altered in size and with various colors of decorative bands, in prototypes for pancreas, liver, and heart transporters that it hopes to bring to FDA trials soon.

A private company, ORS plans to generate income not only from sales of the units but also from the disposable elements necessary for transporting organs via LifePort. Currently the company garners about $800 per kidney in sales of disposable items such as clamps and storage containers. "But we don't measure success by how many widgets are sold in a week," Kravitz says. "For us, the business interest must be balanced with humanitarianism."

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