April 05, 2021

Pioneering breakthroughs in organ transplantation

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Observed in April each year, National Donate Life Month aims to encourage individuals to register as organ and tissue donors, and to honor those who have saved lives through the gift of donation.

90 percent of the U.S. adult population supports organ donation, but only 60 percent is registered. There are more than 107,000 people waiting for an organ transplant nationally, with a new person added to the list every nine minutes.

The UAB Comprehensive Transplant Institute (CTI) and Legacy of Hope would tell you that in Alabama, over 1,200 people are waiting for a lifesaving organ transplant. The need is critical, but the CTI is prepared to combat this need through its rich history of pioneering discoveries, caring for diverse patient populations, and pushing the frontiers of transplantation.

Under the direction of Jayme Locke, M.D., MPH, Mark H. Deierhoi Endowed Professor in Surgery, the CTI has completed more than 15,300 organ transplants. On May 8, 1968, the late UAB surgeon Arnold G. Diethelm, M.D., performed the first kidney transplant–and the first transplant of any kind–in Alabama. Dr. Diethelm hired me as the first African American surgeon at the School of Medicine and had a significant influence on the trajectory of both the CTI and the School of Medicine.

The CTI is one of the busiest institutes in the country with over 400 annual procedures including heart, lung, kidney, pancreas, liver, and multi-organ procedures.

UAB faculty lead one of the busiest pediatric transplant programs in the country at Children’s of Alabama with some of the best congenital heart surgery outcomes for infants. Additionally, we are one of 13 VA kidney transplant programs in the U.S.

In the early 1990s, the CTI was discussing health disparities before the topic was of national importance. According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Office of Minority Health, Black/African Americans make up the largest group of minorities in need of organ transplants. In 2019, only one-quarter of Black/African Americans in need of a transplant received one. To date, the CTI has performed more transplants for Black/African Americans than anyone else in the country.

Leading the way in various initiatives, the CTI performed pivotal clinical trials that led to an immunosuppression drug, Mycophenolate mofetil, becoming a standard of care for all transplant recipients around the world.

The CTI is consistently on the cutting-edge of innovative transplantation care, including the first heart transplant in the southeast in 1981. In 2016, the CTI performed the Deep South’s first HIV-positive kidney transplant from an HIV-positive deceased donor, making UAB the fourth hospital in the country to perform such a procedure.

Amid the COVID-19 pandemic, the CTI never stopped transplant services. This was thanks to the efforts of our staff and telehealth infrastructure that was quickly ramped up to serve patients, donors, and referring physicians. Despite the pandemic, the CTI, under the leadership of Michael Hanaway, M.D., surgical director of the Kidney Transplant Program, had a record year of deceased-donor kidney transplants.

Additionally, in 2020, UAB Medicine established the first uterus transplant program in the southeast and the fourth such program in the U.S. Led by Paige Porrett, M.D., Ph.D., associate professor of surgery in the Division of Transplantation and Comprehensive Transplant Institute, the uterus transplantation program will provide women with uterine factor infertility an innovative option for childbearing, using deceased donor organs. The first uterine transplant has been scheduled for later this year.

These are just some of the ways the CTI is making an impact around the globe. The CTI will continue to push the boundaries for transplantation services, but organ donation is still a critical component of this national crisis.

One person can donate up to eight lifesaving organs. I am an organ donor and can see the difference becoming a donor can make—not only within our community, but for those around the country waiting for a lifesaving organ. If you are already an organ donor, I urge you to talk with your family about your decision to leave a legacy for those in need. For more information about organ donation, I hope you connect with Legacy of Hope. Or, if you are interested in becoming a living donor in Alabama, please reach out to the CTI to learn the various ways you can combat this national need.