Little more than 50 years ago, the world’s first successful kidney transplant took place. Now, more than 16,000 kidney transplants take place each year in the US alone, indicative of just how far organ transplantation has come. Now, researchers have analyzed 25 years of transplant data to determine how many years of life have been saved by the procedure.

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Almost 2.3 million life-years have been saved by organ transplants between 1987 and 2012, according to the study.

The research team, including Dr. Abbas Rana of the Baylor College of Medicine in Houston, TX, publishes their findings in JAMA Surgery.

In the US, around 79 people each day receive an organ transplant. Every 10 seconds, a person is added to the waiting list to receive one. Organ transplantation is normally the only effective treatment for end-stage organ failure, meaning people’s lives literally depend on the procedure.

Statistics up to the beginning of December 2012 reveal that of patients who received a heart transplant, almost 70% were alive 5 years later. For patients who received a kidney transplant from a living donor, 92% were alive 5 years after the procedure. With figures like these, it is no wonder Dr. Rana and colleagues hail organ transplantation as the “marvel of modern medicine.”

For their study, however, the team wanted to delve deeper into the survival benefits of organ transplantation in the US. They set out to determine how many years of life the procedure has saved between 1987 and 2012.

In 1987, the United Network for Organ Sharing (UNOS) began keeping records of all solid organ transplants that take place in the US, as well as records of patients who were waiting for a transplant.

Using the UNOS database, Dr. Rana and colleagues reviewed the records of 1,112,835 patients with end-stage organ failure. Of these, 533,329 received a transplant and 579,506 were on the waiting list but did not have the procedure.

The researchers calculated the number of life-years saved by organ transplantation between September 1st, 1987 and December 31st, 2012 by comparing the survival outcomes of patients who underwent the procedure with those who did not.

The results of the analysis revealed that over the 25-year period, organ transplantation saved 2,270,859 years of life in the US. Each organ transplant was estimated to have saved around 4.3 years of life.

The researchers also estimated the years of life saved by each type of organ transplantation, which were:

  • Kidney transplant – 1.3 million years of life saved
  • Liver transplant – 465,296 years of life saved
  • Heart transplant – 269,715 years of life saved
  • Pancreas-kidney transplant – 79,198 years of life saved
  • Lung transplant – 64,575 years of life saved
  • Pancreas transplant – 14,903 years of life saved
  • Intestine transplant – 4,402 years of life saved.

The researchers hail the almost 2.3 million life-years saved by organ transplantation in the US as a “stellar accomplishment.” They add:

Although most of the findings in this analysis are not novel, this analysis concisely reports on the collective experience of solid-organ transplant in the United States, making it, to our knowledge, the largest study in the field of transplantation yet conducted.

These results refute any lingering perception of transplantation as a niche field with limited practical benefit. Furthermore, focusing exclusively on the survival benefit does not capture the vast improvements in quality of life and the drastically lowered morbidity rates after a transplant.”

The researchers point out, however, that there is a “critical shortage” of donor organs, which hinders progress in the field of organ transplantation.

They note that of the patients on the waiting list for an organ transplant during the 25-year period studied, only 47.9% had the procedure.

According to the US Government Information on Organ and Tissue Donation and Transplantation, 123,258 people in the US are currently waiting for an organ transplant, but only 30,000 organ transplants were carried out in 2013. Around 18 people die each day waiting for an organ transplant.

“The need is increasing; therefore, organ donation must increase,” say the researchers. “We call for deepened support of solid-organ transplant and donation – worthy endeavors with a remarkable record of achievement and a tremendous potential to do even more good for humankind in the future.”

In September 2014, Medical News Today reported on a study published in BMC Medicine, in which researchers from the UK assessed whether an opt-in or opt-out system is best for organ donations.