More than 80,000 people in the United States are on waiting lists for organ transplants. Some will have to wait for the death of a matching donor, but more and more people are receiving organs from living donors.
“Paying people to donate remains illegal, and that’s not what we’re doing here,” Hong says. “This is a social justice issue. If people come from higher income brackets, they can more easily afford the expenses associated with donation. We hope to ensure that financial issues don’t prevent living donors from giving patients in need access to life-saving organs.”
In a related study, Hong and his co-investigators — Roger D. Yusen, M.D., assistant professor of medicine and Alec Patterson, M.D., the Evarts Graham Professor of Surgery and chief of the Division of Cardiothoracic Surgery — also are taking a close look at the health of living organ donors in the months and years following a transplant. Studying living lung and kidney donors, the researchers want to ensure that those donors aren’t experiencing any serious, long-term problems. This is the first large-scale, government-sponsored study to look at organ donor health following transplantation.
“In some sense, transplant centers have never really thought of living donors as our patients,” Hong says. “When you don’t think of them as patients, you don’t follow up with them. Some donors might be followed for a month or six months or even a year, but after that, we really don’t know much about them. We just don’t know whether being generous and donating an organ might have conferred some extra burden on these people.”
When a person donates a kidney, for instance, what happens if later in life they develop kidney disease themselves? And do living donors change their risk of health problems in the years after the transplant? No one really knows. But Hong hopes that learning the answer might provide more incentive for potential living donors.
“The government and the transplant community want to find every reasonable way to put more organs into the pool,” he says. “One way might involve removing economic disincentives for living donors. Another way might be giving people better long-term information about donor outcomes. If we can assure donors that they won’t have to spend thousands of dollars and that they won’t increase their risk of problems down the road, more people might want to donate. That could make more organs available for the people currently waiting for a life-saving transplant.”
Washington University School of Medicine’s full-time and volunteer faculty physicians also are the medical staff of Barnes-Jewish and St. Louis Children’s hospitals. The School of Medicine is one of the leading medical research, teaching and patient care institutions in the nation, currently ranked fourth in the nation by U.S. News & World Report. Through its affiliations with Barnes-Jewish and St. Louis Children’s hospitals, the School of Medicine is linked to BJC HealthCare.