Advances in transplantation: why ethics matters

Sep 21, 2023 by

by Trevor Stammers, Mercator:

Organ transplantation is undoubtedly one of the most significant medical advances of the twentieth century and is often in the headlines. The very first human heart transplant performed in South Africa by Dr Christiaan Barnard in 1967 rapidly made him a household name across the world. As one journalist commented at the time, the story had ‘everything a reporter could wish for’ and it became ‘the operation that took medicine into the media age’.

Transplants have been in the headlines again this month with the announcement of the first-ever UK womb transplant, carried out by Professor Richard Smith and his team at Oxford, though as noted by at least one UK legal scholar, there was very little media comment about the ethics of the procedure.

The European Society for Organ Transplantation has also just concluded its 2023 Congress at which a number of new significant advances were announced which could in future increase the number of organs available for transplant from deceased donors.

Deceased infants

The most significant of these was a report from the US which found that of 21,000 neonates who died in 2020, more than 12,000 were potential organ donors. Very few countries permit donations from neonates, but in those that do, the transplanted kidney from neonates show catch-up growth and were reported to function better than those from living donors.

Professor Gabriel Oniscu, the incoming President of ESOT, acknowledged the ‘highly emotive nature’ of the issues involved in approaching parents about deceased donation from their newborn infants, but considered it ‘imperative that every European country has dedicated paediatric donation protocols in place that encompass neonatal organ donation procedures.’

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