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Thinking outside the box to save a life: Chicago doctors repair lungs outside the body

CHICAGO — A Kentucky man with Stage 4 cancer was going downhill fast when a set of donor lungs became available.

But it turns out those lungs were damaged, not suitable for transplant.

Not giving up, Northwestern Medicine doctors decided to repair the lungs outside the body.

Once healthy, surgeons breathed a sigh of relief before transplanting the organs and saving a life.

Keith Zafren recalls the words his hometown doctor told him in 2022 after four years battling Stage 4 lung cancer.

“He said, ‘This is it. Like, this is the end of the line and we’re out of options,’” he said.

But his wife Lori Friesen had a dream.

“Lori just said, ‘There’s no way. We’re not taking that as our truth. There will be another way.’”

Enter the dream study at Northwestern Medicine.

“This felt like science fiction,” Lori Friesen said. “When we first heard about this, it didn’t even seem real. It didn’t seem possible.”

Chemotherapy could no longer keep the cancer at bay and Zafren could barely breathe through his diseased lungs. At Northwestern, doctors offered an idea: Use a set of damaged, donated lungs to cure his disease and give him the ability to breath again.

Dr. Ankit Bharat is chief if thoracic surgery at the Canning Thoracic Institute.

“The donor lungs developed a lot of blood clots and they were not usable. They were not functioning very well,” Bharat said.

Thinking outside the box, the team treated the diseased lungs in a box clearing the potentially deadly blood clots outside the body.

“We got the death sentence on August 2. One year later on August 2 we got the call,” Zafren said.

Once the lungs were healthy, the first hurdle overcome, the next step, surgery to place the newly repaired lungs into Zafren’s body.

“Once we established that quality and we basically repaired and fix those lungs, we were able to transplant those lungs in Keith and they worked great,” Bharat said.

Dr. Young Chae is with medical oncology at Northwestern Medicine.

“During surgery, we resected a total of 30 lymph nodes and we haven’t found any lymph nodes that contain cancer cells,” Chae said. “So this tells us that this is a type of cancer that is limited within the lung tissue.”

“I think part of the gratitude and the overwhelm is realizing what these brilliant surgeons are doing here at Northwestern Medicine. The boundaries they are pushing, the new procedures that they’re pioneering, the hope that they’re giving people like me,” Zafren said.

“So I think that uniqueness and that novelty, again, was something special for us and has demonstrated how far we can push our technologies to help patients,” Bharat said.

“So don’t give up hope,” Friesen said.

Zafren is cancer free and his new lungs are performing exactly as they should. New life, following a death sentence thanks to science.