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How Long Can an Organ Be Outside the Body Before Transplant?

It depends on the organ.

Once an organ is recovered (removed for the body) it no longer receives oxygenated blood, and the tissues and cells begin to breakdown. If the cells and tissues of the organ breakdown too much the organ will not function properly, or at all. To slow the breakdown, organs are rinsed with a preservation solution and cooled to a temperature between 32- and 39-degrees Fahrenheit. This process delays the breakdown of cells and creates a window of time the organ can be outside of the body without causing irreversible damage.

Even with organs cooled to slow the breakdown of cells, the organ can only be outside of the body for a few hours and still be able to be transplanted. Each organ has a specific timeframe in which it must be transplanted after it has been recovered:

  • Heart: 4 – 6 hours 
  • Lungs: 4 – 8 hours 
  • Liver: 8 – 12 hours 
  • Pancreas: 12 – 18 hours 
  • Intestines: 8 – 16 hours 
  • Kidneys: 24 – 36 hours 

Thoracic organs (heart and lungs) are the most sensitive to a lack of blood flow, which is why they have the shortest window in which they can be outside the body and still be successfully transplanted. Kidneys are extremely resilient and can be cooled for over a day and be fully functional after transplant.

Where Do These Time Guidelines Come From?

The United Network of Organ Sharing (UNOS) works with the transplant community to create policies that will save the most lives possible. Their policies are meant to give each patient an equal opportunity to receive an organ, regardless of gender, age, ethnicity, religion, lifestyle, or financial/social status.

The number of hours organs can be outside of the body and still be viable for transplant is determined by UNOS. To identify these timelines, considerations such as an organs complexity, fragility/resiliency and outcomes data of past transplant recipients are accounted for. The health and safety of recipients is always the top priority.

Organs that are outside the body longer than the pre-determined time are not able to be transplanted. Even with cooling, these organs would have tissue and cell damage that would significantly decrease their ability to function or would be so damaged they would not function at all.