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Drones could move time-critical blood samples across Missouri for organ transplants

Annika Merrilees, St. Louis Post-Dispatch on

Published in Science & Technology News

ST. LOUIS — A St. Louis-based organ transplant agency is exploring unmanned drones as a faster, cheaper method of moving blood samples and medical supplies across the Midwest.

Leaders at Mid-America Transplant, the region's coordinator for organ and tissue donations, said their first goal is to create a system to transport blood samples from potential organ donors to confirm eligibility, via drone. But they also want to eventually use the devices to move medications and supplies to and from rural areas.

And one day, they may follow in the footsteps of other North American medical centers, and explore the potential use of drones to transport donated organs.

Kevin Lee, the president and CEO of Mid-America Transplant, said that when his agency determines whether a patient is eligible to become an organ donor, a blood sample is taken to a lab in St. Louis. If the patient is outside of the St. Louis area, it's "an incredibly resource-intensive process," Lee said.

It's a time-sensitive and expensive effort, orchestrated multiple times each week across a network of cars and small planes. The sample is usually transported by a turboprop plane to the Spirit of St. Louis Airport in Chesterfield and driven the rest of the way.

Retrieving a blood sample from Springfield — home to some of the largest hospitals in southwest Missouri — is about a 3-hour operation, and costs between $9,000 and $12,000.

 

"It's pretty significant for an organization of our size," Lee said.

A drone flight over the same distance would take closer to two hours, Lee said.

Mid-America also wants to eventually use drones to move medications and test samples between the region's major hospitals and the far-flung corners of the Midwest where medical services are thin. And perhaps, even farther in the future, their efforts could lead to a more efficient means of transporting organs for transplant.

The technology has been explored in other parts of the U.S. and around the world, with some early successes. In Rwanda, health officials routinely use drones to transport blood, cutting delivery times over impassable mountains and remote roads from four hours to 15 minutes in some cases, according to the World Health Organization. Medical centers in Baltimore and Toronto have successfully transported donor organs by drone.

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