Every 10 minutes, a new name is added to the national transplant waiting list for a life-saving organ. While the waiting list is alarmingly large (about 115,000 people long), the more concerning factor is the failure rate of organ transplants. But, with the new medical breakthrough of decellularization, organ transplant failure rates have the potential to dramatically decrease, if not disappear.
Currently, the organ transplant process is lengthy and specific to the patient in need. The factors taken into consideration for organ donation are blood type, body size, the severity of a medical condition, and the patient's waiting time. Once these steps are covered, it is possible for the patient to be matched with an organ.
This entire process can take a considerable amount of time to be completed; Typically, a kidney transplant patient needs to wait roughly 3-5 years before they receive their organ donation. With new medical discoveries, this all has the potential to change. Decellularization may be able to solve the time and donor match issue.
What is Decellularization?
Decellularization is the process of removing the cells from a donor organ without damaging the organ itself. We as humans have our own unique DNA, which is different even in immediate family members. This unique DNA makes matching and acceptance of a donor organ extremely challenging, thus the high failure rate.
After the organs have gone through the process of decellularization, they will no longer contain the original host's cells. Each organ will be drained of its blood and washed with a special detergent designed to kill off the cells.
Organ transplant failure rates are notoriously high, but decellularization is about to change that.
This detergent is extremely effective in removing the cells without causing damage to the organ itself. What doctors are left with is a cell-less organ, which when transplanted, will take on the DNA of the recipient.
The discovery of the decellularization process doesn't stop at humans either. With research and experimentation, doctors may be able to use pig organs in place of human ones. Surprisingly, pig organs are eerily similar to human ones, making them feasible donor sources. Plus, with pig donor organs, there wouldn't need to be a transplant waiting list for many of the procedures. Pigs would serve as a reliable, plentiful source of life-saving organs, no match needed.
No Time to Waste: The Stakes are High for Patients on the List
Patients who make it into the transplant list are typically very, very sick. They don't have the luxury of waiting around for the perfect donor match, especially with a list over 100,000 people waiting. While the clock ticks by, patients get sicker, without much hope for a match in the near future. In fact, an average of 20 people die per day waiting for an organ transplant. While the list does accommodate for the severity of the patient's illness, that doesn't always mean a match is around the corner. There are thousands of patients in dire need, so bumping one patient up on the list isn't always the answer.
The transplant list is extremely long and can take years before a patient is matched with an organ; Years that they can't afford to wait for.
Now, imagine the lives that could be saved from decellularized pig donor organs: no more waiting list, no more need for a blood match. The organs would simply need to be drained of their blood and cells and placed into the patient's body. The patient's DNA would then take over the new organ, resulting in virtually no risk of rejection.
The Ethics of Donor Organs
Organ transplants have been ethically debated over for decades. Determining which patients receive organs first and classifying patient health and candidacy are common points of contention in the medical field. After all, who are we as humans to decide who lives or dies?
Ethically, there will be some challenges when it comes to pig donors as well. From sourcing to ease of operation, offering pig organs as transplant options may raise some red flags.
Pig organ donations could solve the issue of donor-to-patient wait times, but there are ethical concerns to be considered as well.
For example, how would the organs be sourced? Would medical facilities pay for pigs to be raised on "organ farms?" This would include the raising of healthy, closely monitored pigs who grow to maturity only to be slaughtered for their organs.
There is also the possibility of people using transplants as a sort of "back up" option to their health. People could view the easily accessible decellularized organs as an excuse to throw their healthy lifestyles out the window. Kidney failure from unmanaged diabetes? There's an organ transplant for that.
Although pig organs could dominate the arena of transplants, they don't eliminate the option for humans to sign up as organ donors. While they would be few and far between, there would still be an option for human organ donations. How would doctors determine which patients receive human organs instead of pig ones? Would there be a separate waiting list for pig or human donations?
The process of decellularization is a huge breakthrough in the field of medicine. It holds the potential answers to some of medicine's most pressing concerns, including transplant wait time and rejection stats. But, as with any discovery, the idea is new. Hashing out the pros and cons of decellularization is a daunting task, and one that the rest of the world anxiously awaits to play out. What are your thoughts on decellularization?