Surgeons in the UK have successfully kept a human heart alive and beating outside the body, before it was transplanted into a patient.
The procedure represents the first successful beating-heart transplant to be performed in the UK, and is significant in that the medical advance could extend life-saving heart transplants to scores more patients.
Doctors at Papworth Hospital in Cambridgeshire kept the organ pumping blood for five hours after removing it from the donor at Addenbrookes hospital, where the donor died; the heart was then taken to Papworth where it was transplanted into a 58-year-old man who was close to death.
Professor Bruce Rosenguard, who led the research team, says the operation which was performed a week ago, was a success and the patient was "doing extremely well" and was on a normal ward.
Professor Rosenguard says they are excited by the possibilities now offered by the advance.
Papworth is one of only four hospitals in Europe taking part in the trial and if the system continues to prove successful, it could significantly increase the number of donor hearts available.
Apparently the donor heart was kept in a specially designed Organ Care System while it was transported between the two hospitals.
Once attached to the system, with plastic tubes inserted into its vessels, the heart was revived to a beating state and infused with oxygen and nutrient rich blood.
Five hours later, when it was transplanted into the eventual recipient at Papworth hospital, it was still as fresh as if it had just been removed.
Heart surgeons have been trying to keep hearts alive and beating after they are removed for years.
It seems organs quickly deteriorate after being taken from the body and hospitals operate a limit of about four hours on using a non-beating donor heart.
That places great restrictions on the distance the organ can be transported and the time available to assemble a surgical team to carry out the transplant, which often happens in the middle of the night.
Being able to extend the period during which the heart can be used, through keeping it alive and beating, the number of organs available for transplant and the number of potential recipients could be broadened.
It will also give surgeons the opportunity to assess the heart and test it for existing diseases and more extensive tissue matching may reduce the risk of rejection.
John Wallwork, the transplant surgeon at Papworth, says the potential for the device is enormous as not only will it be possible to transport hearts over longer distances, heart transplants can now become a daytime activity. It also allows for the hearts to be assessed before the transplant.
He says the device is very clever as it keeps the heart warm and measures the coronary flow as well as other factors. It has the potential to store a heart for up to 12 hours. Without it, a heart taken out of a body begins to rot after about four hours.
It is estimated that 6,735 people are waiting for an organ transplant in the UK, but fewer than 3,000 are carried out and as many as 400 die waiting for a suitable organ.
There are currently 104 people, including nine children, registered for a heart transplant in the UK and another 43 waiting for a heart-lung transplant.
One hundred and forty six people received a heart or heart-lung transplant last year which is down from 170 the previous year.
The transplant was done as part of a European trial and the researchers plan to carry out another 19 operations in Germany and the UK.