January 13, 2012

UCMC professor dissects the kidney industry

The worsening state of America’s dietary habits, a ballooning population of transplant recipients, and a dark and potentially exploitative organ trade were among the subjects of a lecture Tuesday night in Stuart Hall.

About 4,000 people die annually in the United States due to lack of kidney donors, and another 86,000 patients are on the waiting list, making kidney failure a growing problem for the medical industry, according to Lainie Friedman Ross, Carolyn and Matthew Bucksbaum Professor of Clinical Medical Ethics at the University of Chicago Medical Center. She is convinced that the best approach to decreasing these numbers is more preventive care.

“You don’t hear lectures about [preventive measures] because it’s not as sexy,” she said. “We’re getting fatter, lazier, not keeping control of our blood pressure, and more people are getting Type 2 diabetes.”

However, she said, there are ways of making kidney transplants more available—both from prospective donors and past patients. The 1968 redefinition of “death” to “brain death” allowed for more transplants from officially deceased donors. Another contribution to kidney donations is list-paired exchange, an approach where two individuals, incompatible to the relative to whom they want to donate, are matched with other donors.

Looking to the future, Ross hypothesized that soon human donors will be unnecessary. “The day we learn how to grow kidneys from stem cells, we’re never going to use a living donor,” she said.

Ross also introduced the complexities of the human organ market, like the possible exploitation of socioeconomically disadvantaged donors—the most likely participants, she said. “The reason I’m totally against buying and selling is that people in this room are not going to be the sellers, and I’ll end right there,” she said.

The living conditions of poverty prevent 79 percent of living donors from attending follow-up appointments, Ross said, and 85 percent of people who “vended” (donated for money) said they regretted it. Doctors may not be willing to operate on a patient who simply needs the money, Ross said.

The lecture was presented by Triple Helix, an undergraduate RSO that discusses and addresses current scientific issues.