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  • Back to the Future:Obtaining Organs from Non-Heart-Beating Cadavers
  • Robert M. Arnold (bio) and Stuart J. Youngner (bio)

Organ Transplantation requires viable donor organs. This simple fact has become the Achilles' heel of transplantation programs. Progress in immunology and transplant surgery has outstripped the supply of available organs. Between 1988 and 1991, for example, the number of transplant candidates on waiting lists increased by about 55 percent, while the number of donors increased only about 16 percent.1 By the end of March 1993, more than 30,000 potential recipients awaited transplantation (United Network for Organ Sharing Database (UNOS) 1993). Every day six of these patients die prior to receiving a heart or liver transplant, while patients needing kidney transplants must tolerate a lower quality of life on dialysis (Grenvik 1992; Evans, Orians, and Ascher 1992).

This scarcity is likely to get worse. As transplantation becomes more successful, it is being offered to sicker and older patients. Attempts to transplant other solid organs, such as small bowel and pancreas, will only fuel the demand for donors. However, the current source of organs is unlikely to grow. Most organs come from patients who have been declared dead by neurologic criteria (commonly referred to as "brain dead" or heart-beating cadaver donors (HBCDs) because their hearts are beating at the time of procurement). Estimates of the potential pool of HBCDs have been revised downward from 20,000-27,000 to roughly 10,000-12,000 (Nathan et al. 1991). Improvements in automobile safety and handgun legislation will likely lead to further reductions. Moreover, the rate of procurement from HBCDs has remained relatively flat despite extensive public awareness campaigns and legislation requiring hospitals to routinely request donation from families of dead patients (Caplan et al. 1992).

If organ transplantation is going to continue to flourish, alternative [End Page 103] sources of organs must be found. Recently the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center (UPMC) proposed procuring organs from patients who have been declared dead by traditional cardiopulmonary rather than brain-oriented criteria after they or their families have decided to forgo life-sustaining treatment—hereafter referred to as the Pittsburgh protocol (UPMC Policy 1993). These patients are typically referred to as non-heart-beating cadaver donors (NHBCDs) because their hearts are no longer beating at the time of organ procurement.

Although NHBCDs were a major source of transplantable kidneys prior to the institution of death by neurologic criteria, their usefulness was limited by "warm ischemia time." This term refers to the injury to tissues that occurs when the blood supply is interrupted and before the organs are cooled and reperfused. Under the Pittsburgh protocol, therapy is withdrawn in the operating room where a waiting surgical team removes organs immediately after death is declared. By controlling the place and time of death, it has been possible to minimize warm ischemia time and thus solve the technical problems previously associated with procurement from NHBCDs.

The potential contribution of NHBCD organs is significant. Nathan (1992), using data from Delaware Valley Transplant Program, concludes that the use of severely brain injured, but not "brain dead" patients, would increase the donor pool by 20-25 percent. Moreover, unpublished data from the Pittsburgh organ procurement organization, the Center for Organ Recovery and Education (CORE), suggests that these organs, particularly kidneys, function as well as those procured from HBCDs (Broznick 1993).

This volume is devoted to the ethical, psychosocial, and public policy implications of procuring organs from non-heart-beating cadaver donors after a discussion to forgo life-sustaining treatment. The genesis of this volume was a project in which we invited leading experts in transplantation, ethics, and public policy to use the Pittsburgh protocol as a starting point for exploring a broad range of issues associated with attempts to procure organs from NHBCDs. The issues raised by NHBCDs turned out to have important implications about the fundamental conceptual and moral assumptions underlying organ procurement.

Although each of the papers in this volume can be read separately, we intend the volume to be read as a whole. Many of the latter pieces on the ethical implications of the policy are best understood in light of the earlier background papers...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1086-3249
Print ISSN
1054-6863
Pages
pp. 103-111
Launched on MUSE
2009-01-01
Open Access
No
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