Organ transplant program expected to boost success rate

Organ transplant rates in Canada will improve thanks to a new national research program based at the University of Alberta in Edmonton, says the lead scientist.

Research initiative at University of Alberta valued at $24.9M to lower barriers

The family of Sara Congo (in pink) is hoping a new national organ transplant research centre will help her new heart, which she received in November, last longer. (CBC)

Organ transplant rates in Canada will improve thanks to a new national research program based at the University of Alberta in Edmonton, says the lead scientist.

"There are 4,500 Canadians waiting for transplants right now … and they face a 30 to 40 per cent risk of not ever getting a transplant," said Dr. Lori West, a clinician scientist at the University of Alberta. "Canada lags behind."

West is leading the $24.9 million initiative, which will bring together dozens of medical researchers from across the country.

The Canada National Transplant Research Program will look at ways to increase donations, preserve organs better and improve success rates.

"The findings that come out of these studies are going to have an immediate impact on patient care," said West, who calls the program an enormous move forward in organ transplanting.

The program will involve 105 investigators and 86 collaborators at 13 centres and universities across the country.

The most difficult obstacles for successful transplants is the lack of access to organs and the failure of that organ in the years following the operation, she said.

That's where Joel Congo is hoping the program will help his four-year-old daughter, Sara, down the road. She received a new heart in November.

"Maybe she will get five or 10 more years out of a heart because of those little improvements," he said.

Should we pay for organs?

Another area researchers will examine is whether incentives such as money, tax breaks or funeral expenses should be offered to donors, said University of Alberta researcher Timothy Caulfield.

"It's almost like an international norm, that we shouldn't use incentives to encourage the donation of organs — be it deceased organs or live organs," he said. "I think we're sensing and this research team is sensing a shift. So what we want to do is re-visit that."

Caulfield said offering incentives may actually decrease organ donations because it could turn some people away.  

"You erode the whole altruistic ethos that has surrounded organ donation," he said. "But what we want to do with this new research project is we want to open it all up and look at it fresh, look at the evidence, consider all the benefits and harms and try to develop new policy."   

Researchers will also look at getting the most out of organs that become available.

"We have to be able to use all of the organs that are being donated," said Dr. Marie Josee Hebert, a senior member of the research team. "We can now think about how to repair these organs ... to make them better for the potential recipient."

Researchers will also study how to make transplants more effective by minimizing the risk of infection and organ rejection.

With files from CBC's Briar Stewart