Scripps Health patients and doctors made history by participating in the first intercontinental kidney transplant paired donor chain, which started with a man in Greece and has grown to involve 10 organ donors and recipients.
The achievement was announced June 1 at at Scripps Green Hospital in La Jolla, Calif., and at the Embassy of Greece in Washington, D.C.
"This is a new and exciting era in organ transplantation,” said Christopher Marsh, M.D., chief of transplant surgery at Scripps Green. “I hope this example motivates more people to donate their kidney to save lives.”
Expanding the pool of available donors beyond family circles and even national borders means patients will spend less time undergoing dialysis and on organ transplant waiting lists.
“Everyone at the transplant center at Scripps Green is thrilled to be part of this new breakthrough approach that gets patients transplanted sooner,” added Scripps Clinic transplant surgeon Jonathan Fisher, M.D., who participated in the news conference in Washington. “Dialysis can keep you alive, but a kidney transplant can give you your life back.”
Already, the chain has saved five lives and involved four medical centers spread across the United States.
In San Diego County, Genene Wiebe, a 49-year-old mother of four from San Marcos, donated one of her kidneys to an Ohio woman on May 21. Her friend Bernard Tatum, 58, of San Diego, received a kidney from a man in Kentucky several weeks earlier.
Both procedures were performed at Scripps Green by Drs. Fisher, Marsh and Randolph Schaffer, who were all ranked among the top 1 percent of transplant surgeons in U.S. News & World Report’s “Top Doctors” list in 2011.
Donor chain started by patient from Greece
The chain began when Greek patient Michalis Helmis received a kidney from an altruistic living donor – a 31-year-old woman from Oklahoma – after his wife agreed to give one of her kidneys to a 57-year-old man in Pennsylvania. That man’s 43-year-old friend then gave one of his kidneys to a 57-year-old woman in Louisville, Ky. That woman’s husband then gave one of his kidneys to Tatum in San Diego.
The chain is scheduled to continue with three more kidney paired donations and transplants in Atlanta and Denver, according to the Alliance for Paired Donation which arranged the exchanges.
Such exchanges have become more common in recent years as kidney patients have sought new ways to obtain healthy organs after failing to identify a relative who is a good match or spending years on a waiting list for organs from dead donors. Kidney paired donations occur when a donor who is incompatible with their designated recipient promises to donate their kidney to a stranger in order to enable their designee to receive a compatible kidney from another stranger.
Previous efforts to expand the pool of potential paired donation participants internationally have been blocked by national laws restricting the movement of organs across borders in order to prevent nefarious organ trafficking.
The newly announced intercontinental chain was made possible only after officials in Greece changed a law that required Greek patients to receive donated organs from close relatives. The move opened the door for the Greek national health insurance system to pay for Helmis’ transplant and his wife’s organ donation, which both occurred in Ohio.