Organ Transplants

Surgical team - copyright Royal College of Surgeons

By Sir Peter Morris FRS
The Royal College of Surgeons of England

When was the first successful organ transplant?

The first successful kidney transplant took place at Boston’s Peter Bent Brigham Hospital in 1954, where a kidney was exchanged between identical twins.

What are the dangers of organ transplantation?

The greatest risk is the patient’s body rejecting the implanted organ – this happens when the immune system recognises the implanted organ as foreign and attacks it. Immunosuppresive therapy was developed to combat this rejection reaction, but when the immune system is suppressed the body is open to attack from other foreign invaders such as viruses and bacteria. In the early days of transplantation too much immunosuppression was often used and many patients died of overwhelming infections.

Have these problems been resolved?

Immunosuppressive therapy is very effective in modern transplantations and loss of organs from acute rejection is uncommon; however, chronic rejection and other complications (such as infection and an increased risk of some types of cancer) still exist. The prospect of eliminating these complications is the driving force behind the research efforts to trick the recipient’s body to regard the implanted organ as self.

How can we resolve organ shortages?

In future we may be able to transplant organs from animals, grow organs, or even build artificial ones; but these approaches are a long way off. The only solution for the foreseeable future is to increase the supply of organs from deceased donors by encouraging people to join the UK donor registry and changing the culture of donation.