Heart Transplantation Breakthrough: Beating Heart Surgery

Andrea Ybarra has received what researchers call a "beating heart' transplant at the UCLA Medical Center in Los Angeles. The transplant was part of a procedure where the donor heart is placed into a special box that feeds it blood and keeps it warm and beating outside the body.
AP Photo/Damian Dovarganes
Andrea Ybarra beating heart transplant
Andrea Ybarra is among those who have received what researchers call a "beating heart' transplant, at the UCLA Medical Center in Los Angeles. (AP Photo/Damian Dovarganes)

(CBS/AP) A heart that can continue to beat outside of the body? Sounds like something from Edgar Allen Poe.

Actually, storing a donor heart from a brain-dead patient inside a special box that feeds it blood and keeps it pumping while it's transported to its recipient is the cutting edge in organ transplant technology.

If "beating heart' transplants stand the test of time, the days of moving hearts in ice-packed coolers where the heart can only last four to six hours before it starts to deteriorate may come to a close.

The "heart box" is still in the experimental phase, but one patient, Andrea Ybarra, 40, who lives in suburban Los Angeles, belongs to a small group of people who have had a "beating heart" transplant. "It felt like the heart was a part of me all the time," she said.

Based on some success overseas, the University of California-Los Angeles is leading the way.

If the technology succeeds, "the rush factor will be taken out. I can go all the way to the West Coast to get a heart," said Bruce Rosengard, who performed the first beating heart transplant in the United Kingdom in 2006.

In Ybarra's case, the doctors traveled to the donor hospital in the Palm Springs area. Instead of packing the donor's heart on ice, doctors transferred it to a box filled with blood and nutrients to revive it.

The heart was taken to UCLA, where Ybarra was placed on a heart-lung machine as doctors took out her failing heart. The new one was ticking nearby. Surgeons sewed it into Ybarra. All told, the donated heart had been beating in the box three hours.

As for Ybarra, since her August surgery, her health has slowly improved. During a recent checkup, she had an echocardiogram, a sonogram of the heart. It looked normal.

And there's nothing ghoulish about that.