U looks back on organ transplant history

The University performed its first successful kidney transplant in 1963.
By
  • Dylan Scott
October 23, 2013

Mandy Bradley needed a heart transplant as soon as possible.

Last summer, an ambulance rushed the 25-year-old to the University of Minnesota Medical Center, Fairview, where she waited for a donor. If she didn’t get one within two weeks, she would
likely die.

But on her 13th day on the waiting list, she was matched with the heart she needed — a feat that normally takes close
to two years.

“I was very fortunate,” she said.

Patients like Bradley receive organ transplants at the University on a regular basis. Last week, the University celebrated the 50th anniversary of its first successful transplant with a fundraiser gala and a patient education event. But a shortage of donors and a relatively isolated geographic location have created obstacles for the
program.

The University has a history of medical firsts, including the world’s first successful pancreas transplant, the first use of a portable pacemaker in a patient and the first bone marrow transplant.

But now that many institutions perform the same surgeries, the University isn’t as “visible” in terms of a high volume of transplants, said Dr. Hassan Ibrahim, medical director of the University’s kidney transplant program.

“We continue to be one of the premier centers in transplantation,” he said. “We’d like to create more opportunities for research to really regain that kind of No. 1 spot.”

Ibrahim said he thinks creating new approaches to increase donation from living people will help reach that goal.

Half a century ago, physicians at the University performed the institution’s first successful organ transplant — and became one of the first institutions in the world to do so — by transferring a kidney
between twins.

Since then, University surgeons have performed more than 10,000
transplants.

The University is still cutting-edge in terms of organ transplant technology, said Dr. Cindy Martin, an assistant professor and heart failure transplant cardiologist and Bradley’s
doctor.

The University has been a leader in circulatory assist devices that help patients with weak hearts live longer, Martin said. Many other hospitals send employees to the University for training on new devices like the circulatory assist devices.

“Many of the firsts were done here,” she said, “but it’s our goal here not to just accept that and live with our history, but to continue to move that forward.”

Wait times increase

Today, issues like a lack of donors plague the entire field.

Wait time to receive a kidney transplant from a deceased donor has increased drastically. In the mid-1980s, Ibrahim said, the wait time in Minnesota was about six to nine months. Now, it’s
five years.

Ibrahim said he thinks the wait has increased because the number of individuals on the transplant list has grown but also because of better safety and
traffic laws.

In the past, he said, many donors were victims of vehicle accidents, but now laws like the seat belt requirement keep passengers safer.

For heart transplant patients, today’s technology can help patients with heart failure live longer, which increases the demand,
Martin said.

An optimistic predicted heart transplant wait time for an average-sized person with the most common blood type would be about two years, she said.

Of those with the most advanced form of heart failure, she said, 90 percent die within one year.

Another issue with heart transplants is that a heart is only usable for a limited time outside of the body, Martin said.

For Minnesota, this is a particularly acute problem, she said, because its closest geographic neighbors are places like Canada — which mainly provides organs to its own citizens — and the Dakotas, which are sparsely populated.

Heart donations usually come from suicide victims, motor vehicle accidents or gunshot deaths, where the heart is still intact, Martin said.

Eventually, she said, researchers hope to be able to treat those with heart failure before they need a transplant.

“We are making progress,” she said. “It’s going to take time.”

For Bradley, receiving a heart transplant was life-changing.

Although she’s written to the donor’s family, she said she hasn’t heard back from them and doesn’t know anything about her donor. Hospitals withhold that information for privacy reasons, she said.

“That donor is the only reason why I’m alive today,” she said. “It means the world to me.”

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