Can a nationwide liver paired donation program work?


For a patient who needs a liver, living donation offers an alternative to staying on a list of more than 10,000 people waiting for a transplant. But what happens when your donor is not a match? To expand the number of living liver donations in the United States, the United Network for Organ Sharing (UNOS) has launched the first national paired liver donation pilot program.

“It’s an exciting time to be caring for patients who need liver transplants,” Benjamin Samstein, MD, chief of liver transplantation at New York–Presbyterian/Weill Cornell Medical Center, New York, said in an interview. He is the principal investigator for the UNOS pilot program. “I do believe it is within our grasp to make sure that nobody dies while waiting for an organ,” he said.

The initiative involves 15 U.S. transplant centers. So far, one recipient-donor pair has enrolled in the program. The pilot program has three main goals: Increase access to living donor transplants; increase access to transplants earlier, when recipients are in better health; and work out how to create and sustain a national program.

What is paired donation?

In 2020, 1,095 people died while waiting for a liver transplant, according to a report from the Organ Procurement and Transplant Network (OPTN) – a public-private partnership that includes more than 250 transplant centers and 50 organ procurement organizations across the country.

Most liver transplants involve deceased donors. One way to improve access to lifesaving transplants is through living donation, by which a healthy individual donates part of his or her liver. Someone can participate in nondirected or “altruistic” donation, in which someone donates a liver to someone they don’t know, or they can donate to a specific individual (usually a blood relative or a spouse).

With living liver donation, someone may receive a liver earlier, before getting sick enough to be given priority on the wait-list for deceased donation. Because the recipients are in better health, they may have an easier time recovering from the surgery, Ruthanne Leishman, who manages paired donation programs at UNOS, said in an interview.

In some cases, an individual will want to donate an organ to a specific person, but testing reveals that the two would not be a good match. Paired donation allows incompatible donors and recipients to find matches with other incompatible pairs. Each donor matches with the other pairs’ recipient, so the organs are essentially swapped or exchanged between the two pairs.

“People who want to donate get excited about the fact that they are not just helping their loved one but they’re also helping somebody else,” Ms. Leishman said.

Paired kidney donation programs have been running since 2002, but paired liver donation is relatively new. Since the first U.S. living-donor liver transplant in 1989, the procedure has become safer and is a viable alternative to deceased liver donation. A growing number of living donor programs are popping up at transplant centers across the country.

Still, living-donor liver donation makes up a small percentage of the liver transplants that are performed every year. In 2022, 603 living-donor liver transplants were performed in the United States, compared to 8,925 liver transplants from deceased donors, according to OPTN data. Dr. Samstein estimates a couple dozen paired liver exchanges may have been performed in the United States over the past few years within individual hospital systems. A goal of this pilot program, along with increasing access to liver transplants, is to see whether paired liver donation works on a national level, Ms. Leishman said.


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