Overcoming the organ donor shortage

Research the key to boosting organ donation outcomes in Canada, says UAlberta’s Simon Urschel.

Simon Urschel will present new advances in organ transplantation at the third annual Festival of Health on May 25.

Organ donation is vital for saving the lives of thousands of Canadians every year. But low donor rates and a shortage of usable organs mean that each year, thousands more are left waiting for a transplant. In 2016, more than 250 people died waiting for a new organ. As Canada’s population ages, the need for transplanted organs continues to increase.

Simon Urschel, associate professor of pediatrics at the University of Alberta’s Faculty of Medicine & Dentistry and director of the Pediatric Heart Transplant program at the Stollery Children’s Hospital, believes new research is key to overcoming the issues of organ shortages, how to use donor organs more effectively, and improving patient outcomes. Urschel points to breakthroughs, like the ability to transplant organs between patients with different blood types, along with new technologies as important steps to creating a new future for organ donation in Canada.

“Take for example a lung transplant. We now have machines that can keep a lung functioning after the donor has passed away,” said Urschel. “Almost half of the donor lungs that previously would not be fit for transplantation can now be recovered for use. That’s huge.”

Urschel will be presenting a talk on the new frontier of transplantation at the Faculty of Medicine & Dentistry’s third annual Festival of Health, taking place Saturday, May 25 at the U of A’s Edmonton Clinic Health Academy. In addition to the importance of research, he will discuss how a cross-discipline approach may dramatically improve medical procedures, harnessing lessons learned from organ transplantation in young children and infants.

“We have learned from the babies needing a heart transplantation that they can accept an organ much longer than any time later in life,” said Urschel. “The immature immune system requires less medication, can accept organs from donors with a different blood type, and leads to survival over several decades. Our research aims to reset the immune system of older children and adults to provide them with similar good outcomes and broader access to donor organs.”

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