Michael Hengartner explains a Swiss research success

The Liver Machine

Michael Hengartner is President of the ETH Board - and thus something like the Chief Researcher of Switzerland. In his column he speaks about interesting facts from the world of science. This week: How a Swiss invention made a breakthrough in transplant medicine.
Michael Hengartner, President of the ETH Board. (Photo: ETH Board)

I was director of the University of Zurich until the end of January. After the announcement of my call to the ETH Board, I was asked several times why I wanted to move to the "competitor". This question irritated me. After all, the future of research increasingly lies in the collaboration of completely different disciplines. And here the two universities, which are in close proximity to each other but have various subject areas, complement each other almost perfectly. They are undoubtedly one of the strengths of the local research location.

An example: Recently, a research team managed to keep a donor liver alive outside the body for a whole week. A newly developed machine had to imitate the human body as closely as possible. A pump in this machine replaced the heart, a dialysis unit replaced the kidney and so on. The machine also moved the liver in coordination with human breathing. In humans, the diaphragm is responsible for this.
The liver functioned to perfection.

This machine is a major breakthrough in transplant medicine. Until a few years ago, a liver survived only about 24 hours outside the human body. Now a donor liver can be tested and even treated without time pressure. If it is in good condition, it is transplanted to a patient. If its quality is not sufficient, it can be treated initially. In Switzerland, two to three times as many people are in demand of a liver as there are donor livers at disposition. Every liver counts!

Well, what was the field of research behind this breakthrough?

The researchers involved came from very different disciplines: biology, medicine and mechanical engineering. The project was the result of a joint initiative between the University Hospital Zurich, the University of Zurich and ETH Zurich. Such interdisciplinary initiatives are challenging. Everybody is so specialised in her or his own subject that one first has to learn to understand the other person. This is like an intercultural exchange between French, Germans and Swiss. But what do you need the different disciplines for? A medical doctor knows how to distinguish between sick and healthy livers and how to treat sick people. But, of course, he or she cannot build a machine. That's what mechanical engineers are for. And biologists know exactly the functioning of organs, cells and tissues. Each discipline alone would not have been able to develop such a machine. It can only be done together.

With this machine, liver transplantation can be improved already today. In the future, it may even be possible to remove a healthy part of a diseased liver. This part could be allowed to grow outside the body and then be re-inserted. This might even make it possible to cure patients with extensively damaged livers. But for this scenario to become reality, further research - interdisciplinary research - is needed.

The article originally appeared in SonntagsBlick.