Keeping donated organs viable poses a significant challenge for physicians. While a pancreas or liver may last 12 hours, a heart or lungs must be transplanted within six hours. Otherwise, the organ dies. That means donated organs can't travel very far after being harvested, and less-than-perfect recipients are often the only geographically suitable option.

Researchers have studied this problem for years but have not created a more effective way to preserve and transport organs than a basic insulated cooler. However, a team of researchers at the University of Texas at San Antonio have created a device that could potentially extend organs' shelf life between 24 hours and a full week.

Dr. Leonid Bunegin is an associate professor of anesthesiology. He has spent the last 30 years working on the device dubbed the ULiSSES.

"Currently, organs are transported in an ice chest and there is a race to get it where it needs to be because, with each second that passes, the organ deteriorates because it is not getting oxygen, so the tissue begins to die," Bunegin said. "But the device [we] created uses nutrient-rich solution and oxygen to keep the organ healthier for longer."

The cylindrical device uses gas pressure to circulate a nutrient-rich solution through the organ's blood vessels. It adds oxygen to keep the organ alive longer.

The injection of oxygen and nutrients make the organ appear to be pumping while in the cylinder. The device requires no technical support to accompany it on its journey to reach an organ recipient. Once the organ is placed inside, the machine does all the work.

To date, Bunegin's research team has preserved a heart and kidney for 24 hours and colons for 48 hours.

Having more time allows a better match to be made, which could decrease organ rejection rates and allow organs to be moved further around the globe, Bunegin said. Since the device is small and requires no special technology during transit, it's reasonable to assume organs can be transported over great distances.

ULiSSES can accommodate not just organs, but entire limbs, a fact Bunegin says will have many other applications. "We have started researching how the device can save limbs that are lost during a motor vehicle accident, industrial accident, or, more importantly, those lost during combat operations," he said.

"Often, patients who have these experiences take several hours or even days to recover. In a combat zone, it might take hours or days to get to a facility to have an operation." The team has received Department of Defense funding to incorporate ULiSSES into battlefield scenarios.

The device may be used in hospitals as soon as 2020, researchers said. "We've done quite a lot of small animal work already. We're doing large animal work now with the Institute of Surgical Research at San Antonio Military Medical Center," said Tom Debrookes, whose company, Vascular Perfusion Solutions, has worked on the project for the past decade.

Once more data from animals is collected, the team will submit the ULiSSES to the Food and Drug Administration for clearance to begin clinical trials with humans.