Live Liver Donation Safer Than Previously Thought

MONDAY, Jan. 30 (HealthDay News) — People who donate a piece of their liver to someone in need of a transplant can still live a long and healthy life, according to a new study.

This is possible because only a small portion is removed from a donor, and the liver is an organ that can regrow quickly, researchers explain.

Due to a highly publicized liver donor death in 2002, live liver donation dropped from 500 transplants in the United States each year to just 200 to 300 surgeries.

Live liver donation is believed to be more dangerous than it really is, said study leader and transplant surgeon Dr. Dorry Segev. As a result, there is a significant shortage of livers available for the 16,000 people currently in need of a liver transplant.

“The donor process is safer than some have previously thought,” Segev, director of clinical research in transplant surgery at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, said in a Hopkins news release. “Live liver donation is a serious operation with serious risks. However, in this largest study ever conducted in the United States, we have shown that it is safer than many previously believed, with a risk of death of 1.7 per 1,000 donors.”

To assess the safety of live liver donation, the researchers analyzed information on more than 4,000 live liver donors in the United States between April 1994 and March 2011 and followed them for roughly eight years.

Seven donor deaths occurred in the 90 days following surgery.

Although “relatively low,” the risk of death for live liver donors is still five times higher than the risk for kidney donors, the researchers said. However, they noted that kidney donation is a simpler procedure and that the long-term survival rate for live liver donors was overall equal to that of kidney donors and a control group of healthy participants.

The new study appears in the February issue of the journal Gastroenterology.

“For many, the risk of dying on the waiting list is higher than the chance of getting a deceased donor transplant,” Segev said. “For the right patients, with the right needs and the right donors, live donor transplantation can be the best treatment option, and this study reassures us that the risk of a catastrophic complication remains low.”

“The ideal risk of death from donating an organ is zero and we work as hard as we can to seek that ideal,” Segev said. “But in these serious, major operations, it is unlikely the risk will ever be zero.”

More information

The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services provides more information on organ donation and transplantation.