May 21, 2024

Healt Hid

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Exciting times for organ transplantation

3 min read

The beginning of Lisa Pisano’s story isn’t unusual.

Like more than a half-million Americans, Pisano required routine dialysis, due to end-stage kidney disease.

But the next chapter for Pisano, a New Jersey resident and grandmother who suffered from heart failure and other chronic conditions, will be a tale of firsts. Last month, Pisano, 54, became the first person to receive a mechanical heart pump and a gene-edited pig kidney and pig’s thymus gland.

Afterward, Pisano said, she felt “the best I’ve felt in a long time.”

Another comment was more telling, providing insight into what makes organ donation and transplantation so difficult, and so full of hope.

“The worst case scenario, if it doesn’t work, it might work for the next person,” Pisano said. “At least somebody is going to benefit from it.”

That’s the essence of the intricacy, uncertainty and aspiration of the ever-evolving world of organ transplantation, particularly in still-developing and complex fields like xenotransplantation. Take Massachusetts resident Richard Slayman, who in March became the first living person to receive a genetically-altered pig kidney, but who died last week. Doctors said they had no indication his death was due to the transplant.

While the end of Slayman’s story was sad, it came with a layer of joy: His family noted the optimism Slayman provided for patients still waiting, and said how much they valued those seven extra weeks.

The country is experiencing what Northwestern Medicine transplant surgeon Satish Nadig has called “a renaissance of transplantation.” 

In September, California pulmonologist Gary Gibbon, who was suffering from advanced-stage lung cancer and liver failure, received a triple transplant — two lungs and a liver — at Northwestern. It was a remarkable procedure and incredibly complex, especially for a cancer patient.

Gibbon is now cancer free, breathing on his own, and hoping to “spread the word” to potential donors and recipients alike.

Accompanying recent advances, however, is some concern. Last month, a Pennsylvania hospital shut down its liver transplant program, two weeks after a Houston medical center stopped its liver and kidney transplant programs. In both cases, questions were raised about record keeping, transplant eligibility and other problems. Earlier this year, multiple U.S. attorneys began a fraud investigation into organ procurement organizations.

That’s worrisome. Patients and donors need an aboveboard transplant program they can trust. It’s the only way the “renaissance of transplantation” can continue.

The perpetual task is to increase the number of willing donors. Only 46% of New Yorkers ages 18 and over have registered with the state’s Donate Life registry. The national average is 63%. Each organ donor can save up to eight lives; their tissue can help even more. More than 100,000 people are on the national transplant list for all conditions combined.

Living organ donors are even tougher to find, but are important, since 86% of sought-after organs are kidneys, which living donors can provide.

In December, Nassau Assemb. Ari Brown became one of the thousands of Americans who donated a kidney last year. Brown, who was previously screened for a friend with whom he did not match, donated his kidney to a Brooklyn military veteran and Purple Heart recipient he didn’t know.

“You change a world,” Brown said. “You change the life of a recipient and their family.”

You can, too. Beyond considering becoming a living donor, you can easily sign up to join New York’s organ donor program.

I’ve registered. Won’t you? Go to donatelife.ny.gov.

Columnist Randi F. Marshall’s opinions are her own.

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