What is organ donation?

How does organ donation work?
26 November 2019


Surgery taking place in an operating theatre


Here's Amalia Thomas with the quick fire science on organ donation...

On 17th December 1986, at the Papworth Hospital in Cambridge, something rather amazing happened. Davina Thompson became the first person to have a heart, liver and lung transplant, after an operation requiring 7 hours and 15 people. She would go on to live another 12 years.

So how does organ donation work? If you were somehow, to get very sick, you might need to an organ transplant. That involves taking an organ from a donor, and putting it in you, so the healthy organ can take over the job of the damaged one. We hear about it a lot these days and it’s a pretty common procedure, but donating whole organs from one person to another is a procedure that’s only about 60 years old. The first one was done in 1954 when Richard Herrick, an American naval officer was given a kidney by his identical twin brother Ronald.

It worked well for those two because they were identical twins, so Richard’s body didn’t really notice the difference between the old organ and the new one, except that the new one worked. But two people who aren’t so close have different genes. The immune system is then able to notice the difference and will attack the new organ, because as far as it’s concerned, it doesn’t belong there. This will happen if the blood types aren’t compatible as well.

This is called organ rejection. Organ rejection can happen quickly, just one week after the transplant. If it’s not seen to, it’s life-threatening. There are things that can be done to minimise this. For starters, the closer genetically two people are, if they’re siblings, or parents, the more similar their genetics are going to be. Maybe close enough that it won’t bother the immune system of the person receiving the organ.

The other thing you could do is quiet down the immune system. There are several drugs that can be used to make the immune system a little less aggressive, b these drugs all come with their own side effects.

These days we can transplant a whole range of organs; kidneys, heart, lungs, liver, and those people see a better quality of life for years. Think of what we might be able to do in the future!


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