Advances in transplant medicine mean that more patients can now be saved or their quality of life improved. Organ transplants are performed regularly in the kidneys, heart, liver, lungs, pancreas and small intestine. In addition, tissues such as corneas and heart valves can be donated.

Patients of all ages, including newborn babies, may require a donation for many different reasons including: illness and accidents. For example, organs such as the lungs and the heart can be used for patients suffering from cystic fibrosis or heart disease. Tissue donation can be used to help patients see again or relieve pain.

Organs that can be donated and how they can be used

The many ways organ donation can help aren’t always obvious, another reason why signing up is important because we all have the potential to help someone in need of an organ or tissue. Below is a list of organs that can be donated and how they can be used.


The hardest working muscle in the body, the heart beats 60-80 times per minute as it pumps blood throughout the body. For conditions such as heart disease, medicines or conventional operations sometimes no longer work. A transplant is sometimes the only option.

Some conditions that can make a transplant necessary are cardiomyopathy, heart failure, myocarditis, and heart disease. Hearts can be preserved for up to 4-6 hours before they must be transplanted.


The windpipe or windpipe carries air to the lungs. The alveoli, small sacs of air similar to folded balloons, extract oxygen and exchange it for carbon dioxide.

A single lung can save a life. One donor can be the source of two lung transplants. Some conditions that might need a lung transplant are cystic fibrosis, pulmonary hypertension, emphysema, and pulmonary edema. The lungs have a shelf life of up to 4-8 hours.


The kidneys filter waste and excess water from the blood and balance the fluids in the body.

When the kidneys fail, people experience fatigue, bloating, shortness of breath, anemia, anxiety, and nausea. Some conditions that can make a kidney transplant necessary are high blood pressure, diabetes, and cystic kidney disease. A kidney transplant relieves patients of the burden of dialysis, but while waiting for a kidney transplant, many patients undergo dialysis to remove toxins from their blood.

Ethnic minorities are four times more likely to develop kidney failure. The kidney is the most commonly transplanted organ and the most necessary. The kidneys can be preserved for up to 24-48 hours.


The liver is a complex organ that has more than 500 known functions. It breaks down harmful substances in the blood, produces bile that aids digestion, and stores vitamins, sugars, and fats. A donated liver can sometimes be divided between two recipients, so one donor can be the source of two liver transplants.

Some conditions that might require a liver transplant are congenital liver or bile duct defects, disease such as primary biliary cirrhosis or a life-saving patient who dies from liver failure, chronic liver infections such as hepatitis or drug damage, and alcohol. Livers have a shelf life of up to 12-15 hours.


The pancreas produces insulin, a hormone that helps the body use glucose (sugar) for energy and the enzymes that break down fat, protein, and carbohydrates during digestion.

A pancreas transplant is the only treatment that restores insulin independence for people with type 1 diabetes and can prevent or slow diabetic complications such as blindness and kidney failure.

The pancreas controls the level of glucose in the blood. It is often transplanted with one kidney, because diabetes affects both organs. The pancreas can be preserved for 12-24 hours.


The intestines digest food and absorb nutrients into the bloodstream. Most intestinal transplants are done in infants and children. Some conditions that may make a transplant necessary are bowel twisting or blockage or short bowel syndrome.
The intestines can be kept for 6-10 hours.


Tissue transplantation offers great benefits to many people. The tissues that can be donated are:

  • Corneas
  • Eyes
  • Skin
  • Heart valves
  • Veins
  • Upper body bones
  • Bone and connective tissue

A donated tissue can relieve pain, improve eyesight, or allow recipients to return to work and continue a normal life. Heart valves can save the lives of patients, including young children born with malformed hearts or suffering from damaged or diseased valves.

Donating can also help patients suffering from serious eye disease or injury. When a donor agrees to donate their corneas, the eyes are removed to preserve the integrity of the corneas until they are ready for transplantation. Additionally, other parts of the eye, such as the sclera, can also be used for transplantation.

Living donation

It is possible to be a living donor. The most common type is kidney donation, when a kidney is removed from a healthy individual and transplanted to a family member or friend. In recent years, it has also been possible for people to donate part of their liver.

Living donation is obviously a very important decision, and each person who comes forward undergoes a rigorous evaluation. All live donors and recipients are reviewed by an independent assessor who is responsible for ensuring that there is no pressure or duress involved, and that all parties understand the risk of complications.

The Organ Donor Registry is only for those who wish to donate after death. To be a living donor, you must contact a transplant center directly.

By Dr. Eric Jackson

Dr. Eric Jackson provides primary Internal Medicine care for men and women and treats patients with bone and mineral diseases, diabetes, heart conditions, and other chronic illnesses.He is a Washington University Bone Health Program physician and is a certified Bone Densitometrist. Dr. Avery is consistently recognized in "The Best Doctors in America" list.

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