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Nov 18, 2013 10:52 AM EST

Lungs Survive For Up To 4 Hours after Death; Finding May Boost Lung Transplants

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Researchers at the University of North Carolina found that lungs can survive for up to four hours after a person expires. They managed to recover lungs by pumping air into them within an hour of a sudden donor death.

Unlike other organs, lung cells don't depend on blood flow for oxygen. When the heart stops beating, they use the remaining oxygen in the air sacs and airways. And this is what keeps the lungs from deteriorating.

This finding can now give rise to more transplants and ease long waiting lists saving thousands of patients.

Prior to this, surgeons believed that organs could not be retrieved after a donor's sudden death. As a result, lung transplants are a rarity and doctors often advise patients not to have hope.

"The general public does not understand how hard it is to become an organ donor. They assume if they sign their card, when they die, then it will happen," bioethicist Arthur Caplan of New York University's Langone Medical Center told abc. "Only 2 to 3 percent of people die in circumstances that let them be organ donors."

Researchers conducted the experiment over three years. They injected air into the lungs of an individual who died at home before transporting the body to hospital. When they reached the hospital, the lungs were still 'breathing'.

"There aren't enough lungs. We're burying them. It turns out your lungs don't die when you do," Dr. Thomas Egan of the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, and the project lead told DailyMail UK. "There are huge logistical hurdles. But if we're right, this would have a profound impact on the number of lungs that are available for transplant."

This successful experiment now hopes to boost lung transplants by making way for donations from people who suddenly collapse and die at home.

"That would be the greatest thing, to be able to breathe normal," Lisa Bowman, 51, of Union Grove, N.C., told NBC news.

Bowman has been on the waiting list for the last two years after a rare genetic disease gradually damaged her own set of lungs. She said that it became like 'breathing through a pinhole.' With this experiment, Bowman now hopes to find her match sooner.

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