The first death of a living liver donor in 2001 has suppressed donations for nearly 20 years, but a University of Minnesota researcher hopes new data on donor outcomes will reverse that trend and cut the list of severely ill people awaiting transplants.
Analyzing 176 people who underwent liver donations at the university since 1997, researchers found that their long-term quality of life, on average, exceeded the quality of life of the average American.
While the results are specific to transplants performed at the university, which uses a conservative standard in selecting healthy donors, they nonetheless should give people confidence in the safety of donation, said Dr. Srinath Chinnakotla, a U transplant surgeon who led the study.
“The major reason why the donation rates are low,” he said, “is that people are concerned about the complication rate and the long-term outcome rate.”
While most transplants involve livers from donor volunteers who have died, the option of being a living liver donor has existed since 1996. Roughly 40 to 60 percent of the liver from the donor is removed, and it begins immediately to grow back.
Living donations peaked at 524 in the U.S. in 2001, when a highly publicized death resulted in a gradual slowdown in interest. In 2013, there were only 252 living donations, according to the federal Organ Procurement and Transplantation Network.
Trouble is, the U.S. waiting list for liver transplants now includes 14,000 people, Chinnakotla said. Based on current trends, half of those people will die without transplants.
Three people have died in U.S. medical history as living liver donors, Chinnakotla said, but the complication rate remains low. No donor deaths have occurred at the U, which found in its latest study that the most common complications for donors were pain at the incision site and trouble digesting fatty meals.
Chinnakotla said the university only admits donors between the ages of 20 and 50 who aren’t overweight and don’t have chronic health problems of their own. Donors also have to be friends or relatives of recipients.
“We will not take someone they found on Facebook or something like that,” the doctor said. “We can’t tell if there’s money exchanged. They might say, ‘We found somebody on Facebook!’ But what if they paid the donor?”
Chinnakotla said he hopes his latest outcomes study will inspire more donors.
“Living liver donation,” he said, “is one of the most selfless acts a person can perform.”