November 13, 2019

Launch of living liver transplant program to increase availability of organs

VUMC is launching a living liver donor transplant program, significantly increasing the number of available organs for life-saving transplants.


by Matt Batcheldor

Vanderbilt University Medical Center is launching a living liver donor transplant program, significantly increasing the number of available organs for life-saving transplants.

The program will allow relatives to donate part of their liver to their loved one. The resulting partial liver in the donor and recipient has the ability to regenerate to become a fully-functional organ, typically within six weeks. VUMC’s program was recently approved by the United Network for Organ Sharing, the organization that allocates donor livers.

Nationally as well as in Tennessee, some patients on the waitlist for a liver will die before receiving a transplant because of the limited supply, said Sophoclis Alexopoulos, MD, chief of Liver Transplantation.

“A live donor liver transplant is one way to address the shortage of critically needed organs,” he said. “The reason why we perform a liver transplant is to save a life. You’re taking somebody who has end-stage liver disease and you’re giving them a healthy portion of liver, and many of the signs and symptoms of liver disease begin to immediately resolve. You’re giving somebody an opportunity to live.”

A living liver donation gives the recipient the opportunity to receive an organ sooner. People on the transplant list regularly wait months to years to receive an organ from a deceased donor. With a compatible living donor, a transplant patient may receive a live donor liver within weeks. Alexopoulos anticipates that eventually 10 to 15% of liver transplants performed at Vanderbilt will be from a living donor.

“It is important for Vanderbilt to be able to offer this life-saving service to the residents of Middle Tennessee,” said Seth Karp, MD, professor and chair of the Section of Surgical Sciences at VUMC and director of the Vanderbilt Transplant Center. “This is a natural next step for our liver transplant program, which is one of the largest in the country. Dr. Alexopoulos has built a team of extraordinary quality that will be able to help both adults and children in need of liver transplantation.”

Potential donors are screened in a multistep process, including a questionnaire, a visit with a donor advocate and a medical evaluation. To donate a liver, the person must be a relative of a recipient, at least 18 and healthy enough to donate the liver. Criteria include blood compatibility and no addiction to drugs or alcohol, major psychiatric illness or chronic medical conditions.

“We also need to make sure they have enough liver to donate that is going to sustain their loved one but also we have to leave the donor with enough liver that they can make a full recovery,” Alexopoulos added.

The program will serve both adult and pediatric patients. For adult donors, doctors typically remove the right lobe of the liver, which represents about 60% of the organ. The operation typically lasts five to six hours, followed by five to six days recovering in the hospital and eight to 12 weeks at home. For children, the portion that is removed is the left lateral segment, which represents about 15 to 20% of the liver mass, a simpler operation with faster recovery.

A living liver donor can expect a normal, healthy life.

“The vast majority of patients who donate a portion of their liver to save a loved one’s life would do it again and are very fulfilled with their decision,” Alexopoulos said.

More information about the living liver donor program can be found here.