ST. LOUIS (KTVI) - Not long ago, Michele Coleman, 63, was so weak; she could not even muster the strength to carry her purse.
She was suffering from COPD, and needed a double lung transplant to save her life.
The problem is more than 80 percent of donated lungs are rejected not by the patients, but by the surgeons.
'After brain death they are more susceptible to injury than other organs so the recovery of lungs is comparatively low,' said Dr. Daniel Kreisel, who was one of the Washington University transplant surgeons handling Coleman`s case.
But now, there may be a way to increase the number of usable lungs in the transplant pool, thanks to a device called the Xvivo Perfusion System.
But doctors at Washington University simply refer to it as 'the box,' even though it more closely resembles a plastic cake dome.
The box is used to rejuvenate borderline lungs by circulating a nutrient solution through them while they are being ventilated, drying up excess fluid and improving their cells, making them suitable for transplant in just four to six hours.
The lung reconditioning is done at Mid-America Transplant; the surgery is done a few blocks away at Barnes-Jewish Hospital by doctors from the Washington University School of Medicine.
'It is actually quite amazing that when we are evaluating the lungs in the box and you see a gentle misting in the box that is an indication it is doing well and the lungs are healthy,' said Dr. Varun Puri, also a transplant surgeon at Washington University School of Medicine.
The box is undergoing clinical trials at 16 sites across the United States and Coleman is grateful Wash. U. is one of them.
She was the St. Louis study's first volunteer to receive a transplant.
She had the surgery in November.
Without it, Coleman says she would have been dead by Christmas.
'Now I can do all kinds of things,' said Coleman. 'I couldn`t cook for two years because it was too much effort. It was just too much effort to go anyplace.'
Even if this device is approved for widespread use in the United States, it is successful in turning subpar lungs into thriving lungs only 40 to 50 percent of the time.
The box has already been approved for use in Europe and Canada.