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An amazing medical achievement
1954 was the year when the first human transplant from a living donor was performed. The donated organ was a kidney, taken from Ronald Herrick and transplanted into his identical twin Richard. Dr. Joseph Murray was the surgeon in charge of performing the transplant, at Brigham Hospital in Boston, and this amazing accomplishment made him worthy of the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine, in 1990.
Organ transplantation is not as easy as it sounds
Two main advantages helped in the success of the surgical procedure performed by Dr. Murray and the transplant on itself, which finally lead to extend the recipients life. First, the fact that the needed organ was a kidney and not a heart, for example, make it simpler to find a donor.
And secondly, and most important, was the fact that the recipient had a twin brother, which meant that they could easily get access to a kidney and the risk of rejection was minimal compared to the risk if it had been the kidney from someone unrelated to the patient.
Following the transplant, Richard lived eight more years and his case opened a new alternative for patients with diseases where only an organ replacement could save their lives.
In 1967, the first heart was transplanted by Dr. Christiaan Barnard. Unfortunately, the recipient only lived 18 days after the procedure as a consequence of an infection caused by the immunosuppressive drugs that the patient had to take to reduce the risk of rejection. Still nowadays, organ rejection after transplantation is a major issue that has to be taken into account before performing a transplant.
Basics on organ donation and transplantation
Organ and tissue transplants involve the replacement of an injured organ or tissue for a healthy one, either taken from a deceased or a living donor. If the organ comes from a dead person, the donor must have expressed his or her wishes to donate the organs when alive. The process is a bit simpler if the organ comes from a living donor, which usually occurs when talking about kidney or bone marrow transplantations, for example.
Unfortunately, the need of organs is much greater than the donation rate, which is why patients often have to wait for years before receiving a new organ. Just so you can have an idea, recipients sign into a waiting list, which in the U.S. is maintained by the United Network for Organ Sharing (UNOS), and that currently has around 123,000 patients signed in for a transplant.