Though the idea of transferring tissues dates back over a century (and by some accounts much further than that), its expanding role and the emergence of its complementing field of regenerative medicine much more recently are on track to revolutionizing medicine as we know it.
The first successful organ transplantation was performed by Dr. Joseph E. Murray in 1954 when he took a kidney from a donor and transferred it to his twin. He was awarded the Nobel prize in physiology or medicine for his contributions to the field many years later in 1990. Indeed, it is Dr. Murray's recent passing on November 26th, at the age of 93 that has inspired this post.
Transplants can occur in many different forms and can be carried out using tissues as well as organs. The source (or donor) tissue can be derived from oneself (eg harvesting skin from one area for another), from another person, or in some instances animals (xenografts).
One of the most challenging aspects of transplant medicine, at least for the time being, remains one fundamental limitation: immunocompatibility. Indeed, Dr. Murray's first transplantation success was highly contingent upon the immunocompatibility of the twins. Most individuals in need of a transplantation however, are not as fortunate to be presented with such circumstances. Consequently, it was the advent of immunosuppressive drugs as well as donor and recipient matching systems that have been essential in reducing organ and tissue rejection rates over the years.
Though progress continues to be made in the field, evinced perhaps most clearly by the recent first successful face transplantation in Europe, another key limitation that remains is that of acquiring enough donor organs/tissues to meet the need of hopeful organ recipients. This dilemma however, may only be a transient one as we continue to develop artificial tissue engineering technology and continue to make leaps forward in utilizing stem cells for tissue regeneration.
- A look at engineered tissue which could someday lead to engineering organ transplants
- Ways we could shorten the transplant waiting list, specifically for those waiting for livers.