When we hear stories about organ transplants in the media, they are typically portrayed in an upbeat fashion, especially since these are clearly life-saving events. Though organ transplants are indeed a “gift of life,” we must also acknowledge that they are a treatment and not yet a cure. 

Understanding the facts

Organ transplants essentially replace a pre-existing disease that resulted in organ failure with another life-long condition of chronic treatment with immunosuppressive medications that are essential to prevent immune rejection of the graft. Unfortunately, outside of the transplant community, there is little attention given to what happens to recipients after receiving an organ transplant.

Without organ rejection, transplant recipients could live full, healthy lives and the demand for organs on the waiting list would decrease.

Unfortunately, approximately 50 percent of transplant recipients face organ failure within 5 to 10 years, depending on the type of organ transplanted and the nature of the pre-existing condition. Even with anti-rejection medication, kidney transplants last an average of roughly 15 years. Other organs have considerably worse outcomes, such as lung transplants, which often last less than 5 years. This is typically due to organ rejection or other complications related to taking toxic immunosuppressive drugs.

Moreover, the waiting list to receive a life-saving organ in the U.S. is approximately 116,000 with an average of 22 people dying every day awaiting a suitable donor.  Unfortunately, the need for organ transplants continues to grow relative to organ donation rates.  The need for recipients requiring re-transplants following to failure of the original graft only exacerbates this overall demand for organs.  For example, per the national OPTN/SRTR 2015 Annual Data Report: Kidney, 13 percent of the nearly 98,000 individuals on kidney transplant waiting list at the end of 2015 were comprised of recipients awaiting a re-transplant with a new organ.

Medicine for life

Another major issue for transplant recipients is the need for long-term use of immunosuppressive drugs. These medications can put organ transplant recipients at risk for cancers, infections and other complications due to the toxicity of these agents.

In the face of these ongoing major transplant community needs, in October 2017 the American Society of Transplantation (AST) hosted its inaugural Transplant Patient Summit in Washington, D.C. This Summit brought together transplant recipients, living donors, donor families, transplant providers and policymakers from across the country to discuss critical challenges and roadblocks within the community.

A common theme of this Summit was the need to make “one transplant for life” a reality. Without organ rejection, transplant recipients could live full, healthy lives and the demand for organs on the waiting list would decrease.

The AST also has launched a public-facing initiative called Power2Save, which provides resources and information on how to get involved in this call to action to improve the lives of organ transplant recipients and their families.