Transplant medicine through the years: a brief timeline

NDLM_2014_FacebookProfile11April is National Donate Life month, when people come together to raise awareness about organ donation and encourage others to register themselves as donors.  Donate Life Month is in its 11th year, but organ donation itself dates back much further. In fact, in ancient Greek, Roman and Chinese cultures there are legends of transplants performed by gods and healers, proving that the concept of organ donation is at least thousands of years old. Here’s a quick look at how organ transplantation has progressed over the years:

 As early as 800 B.C., Indian healers were believed to be grafting skin—technically, the largest human organ—from one part of the body to another to repair wounds and/or burns

In the 1600s, an Italian surgeon reconstructed his patients’ deformed noses and ears using skin from their arms. Sometimes he would use skin from a deceased donor, but when he did so the grafts failed. This is believed to be one of the world’s first reports of transplant rejection.

The first attempt at transplanting an organ from a human deceased donor to a living patient was performed by a Ukrainian surgeon in the 1930s, but the organ rejected quickly.

In 1954, doctors performed the first-ever kidney transplant, when a living donor gave a kidney to his identical twin at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston.

In 1987, the first successful intestinal transplant was performed in Kiel, Germany.

In 1995, the first living donor kidney was removed through laparoscopic surgical methods, making recovery far easier on the donor.

In 1998, French doctors performed the first successful hand transplant. A year later America saw its first hand transplant.

Since its first organ transplant in 1971, Boston Children’s Hospital has been doing its part to advance pediatric transplant medicine. In 2006, the hospital merged all its transplant programs to form the Pediatric Transplant Center, and with support of the New England Organ Bank and the generous gifts of those individuals and families who chose to donate life, it has created new beginnings for thousands of children ever since.

  • Kyah came to Boston Children’s in need of a new heart. But a shortage of available donor organs meant that she might need to wait for up to a year before she could receive one. To keep her healthy and active in the meantime, she was fitted with a ventricular assist device (VAD), a portable, motorized pump that kept her heart functioning. Pretty soon Kyah was back at school learning and spending time with friends, making her the first child in North America to head back to school with VAD while awaiting transplant.

  • Every year, dozens of infants and small children in need of a liver transplant die waiting for a donor organ to become available. But it’s not usually a lack of donor organs that prevents doctors from saving these children—it’s a lack of organs small enough to fit in their bodies. In 2013, researchers from the Pediatric Transplant Center released data demonstrating that splitting livers—careful segmentation of an adult donor liver into two unequally sized portions, where the larger segment is given to an adult patient and the smaller portion to a child—is as safe a practice as whole liver donation. “If we can increase the number of split livers from 120 to 200, an increase of less than 2 percent of all the livers transplanted each year, it would make grafts available to virtually every small child on the waiting list,” says Pediatric Transplant Center Director, Heung Bae Kim.

Learn more about this important research.

  • Until recently, treatment for children living without two functioning hands has been traditional or body-powered/electric prostheses. And while some children are able to quickly adapt to life with a prosthetic limb, there are those who find living with a prosthetic challenging. To better serve these patients, Boston Children’s Hospital launched the world’s first Hand Transplant Program for children in 2013. This research-based program will offer bi-lateral hand transplants for children living without two functioning hands.

Learn more about this groundbreaking program, and the doctor who started it.