Female hand writing signature on the paper document.

How to Construct Better Organ Donation Policy and Achieve Health Equity

By James R. Jolin

The United States is facing an organ donation crisis, with massive gaps between supply and demand.

Per estimates from the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), over 106,000 Americans are currently awaiting this life-saving medical treatment. Further, the burden of this shortage falls unequally:  in 2020, while approximately 48% of white patients in need of transplants received an organ, only 27% of Black patients secured one.

The stakes are too high to allow the organ donation crisis to proceed in the U.S. without bold intervention. But with many policy options on the table, unresolved ethical concerns, and a patchwork of organ donation laws across the country, the proper path forward is not immediately clear.

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Doctor or surgeon with organ transport after organ donation for surgery in front of the clinic in protective clothing.

Pig Hearts for Humans and the FDA

By Jacob Balamut

David Bennett, a man who recently underwent the world’s first successful xenotransplantation organ surgery, died last month after a sudden and as yet unexplained period of rapid deterioration.

Bennett, who was 57 years old, had been suffering from end-stage heart disease. With limited options for treatment, he underwent an experimental emergency procedure to replace his damaged heart with a genetically modified pig’s heart. The pig was genetically modified to limit the likelihood that Bennett’s immune system would reject the heart.

Many researchers and clinicians alike see the potential for genetically modified animal organs to serve as a solution to our organ transplant and supply issues. The Health Resources and Services Administration estimates that 17 people die per day on the candidate waiting list. These deaths are the result of a lack of supply of organs, which has been a longstanding issue within the United States.

However, currently, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has not approved any genetically modified or pure animal organs for xenotransplantation in humans. For the surgery to go forward in Bennett’s case, the team had to submit a request to the FDA seeking to use the pig heart in the emergency procedure (so-called “compassionate use”). The lack of approved xenotransplantation products stems from a lack of safety data and concerns regarding the potential for cross-species infections to occur.

In 2016, the FDA updated previously existing guidance for xenotransplantation. The purpose of the guidance was to inform the industry of how the FDA would be handling xenotransplantation applications and to provide recommendations.  In order for xenotransplantation products to be approved, the following process must occur.

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Doctor or surgeon with organ transport after organ donation for surgery in front of the clinic in protective clothing.

Recent Organ Procurement Organization Regulations Will Save Lives

By Matthew Wadsworth

Thirty-three Americans die every day for lack of an organ transplant. As the CEO of an organ procurement organization (OPO) — one of the network of 57 government contractors responsible for organ recovery across the country — this is what I think about every day: how to help the 3,000 people waiting in my home state of Ohio and the more than 100,000 others around the country who wake up each morning hoping they get a call that a transplant is available.

Fortunately, the U.S Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) recently published new, pro-patient regulations to bring baseline accountability to OPOs. While some of my peers have opposed the reform effort, I see it as long overdue.

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Scientist analyzes DNA gel used in genetics, forensics, drug discovery, biology and medicine

Transplant Genomics: Ethical, Legal, and Social Implications

By Tamar Schiff

The appeal of precision medicine is of particular significance in transplantation. Treatment options are already integrally dependent on genetic factors – the donor-recipient match – and the demand for transplantable tissues far outstrips the available supply.

And the potential is only growing. Advances in genetic and genomic studies have identified an increasing number of novel biomarkers of potential use in transplant-related care. These include predictors of disease course, graft survival, response to immunosuppression, and likelihood of disease recurrence or other complications.

With wider availability of sequencing technologies and innovations in databanking, future clinical applications in transplant care may require ever-growing considerations of the significance of genetic variants, fair access to precision medicine therapeutics and participation in research, ethical approaches to data aggregation, and social determinants of health.

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Doctor or surgeon with organ transport after organ donation for surgery in front of the clinic in protective clothing.

How to Encourage Organ Donation

By James W. Lytle

Last week, Bill of Health published a Q&A with Phil Walton, the Project Lead for Deemed Consent Legislation with the National Health Service Blood and Transplant Division, and Alexandra Glazier, the President/CEO of the New England Donor Services.

In the first part of this conversation, Walton and Glazier described the various frameworks undergirding organ donor registries in their home countries. Walton detailed the “deemed consent” or “opt-out” registry employed by Wales and England, while Glazier detailed the opt-in, prompted choice framework in the U.S.

In this second installment, Walton and Glazier discuss strategies to encourage organ donation, regardless of the opt-in or opt-out framework. The conversation also touched on health disparities and strategies to address them.

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adult and child hands holding red heart, organ donation concept image.

Opt-in vs. Opt-out Organ Donation Schemes: Evidence from the US and UK

By James W. Lytle

We need to encourage organ donation. In the U.S. alone, even with a record number of about 40,000 transplants in 2019 and some progress made towards closing the gap, approximately 108,000 Americans are on the waiting list.

In considering the best way to increase organ donation, much of the debate has focused on how to make organ donor registries more successful: nothing facilitates the prospect for organ donation more than knowing that a potential donor has already indicated their intention to donate.

Should registries, like those in the U.S., require people to elect to join (the “opt-in” approach) or should they presume consent to organ donation and register everyone except those who explicitly “opt-out,” as is the case in certain other countries?

I asked two transplant professionals, one from the U.S. and one from Wales, to help consider this question and related issues involving organ donation.

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organ transplant

New Regulations for Organ Procurement Organizations Pose Concerns

By Alexandra Glazier

The United States has one of the highest organ donation and transplant rates in the world. A poorly crafted regulatory change could disrupt our world-leading system and put patients at risk.

Recently, new performance regulations for organ procurement organizations (OPOs) were promulgated by CMS in the last stretch of the Trump Administration, which should be reviewed by the incoming Biden Administration.

While there is widespread support for reform to the system of organ donation and transplantation, including consensus that changes to the CMS metrics measuring OPO performance are warranted, there are significant differences in opinion on how that can be accomplished best.

Bipartisan groups and delegations of both Democrats and Republicans, donor families, the medical community, and donation and transplant professionals as well as OPOs have raised a range of concerns about specific aspects of the proposed and final regulations, making suggestions on how the regulations could be improved to achieve the goal of transplanting more patients.

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Adult and child holding kidney shaped paper on textured blue background.

New Regulation Aims at Accountability for Organ Procurement Organizations

By James W. Lytle and Abe Sutton

Facing a looming deadline for the adoption of pending proposed rules, the Trump Administration finalized a host of healthcare regulations, including highly anticipated regulations addressing drug pricing and Stark Law/anti-kickback rules. Within this flurry of regulatory activity, the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS) also finalized an important, but not as widely discussed, proposal that seeks to hold Organ Procurement Organizations (OPOs) more accountable for their performance.

While some of these last-minute actions by the outgoing administration may ultimately be reversed or revised by the Biden Administration, this rule was associated with a well-regarded Advancing American Kidney Health initiative that has been “widely hailed by health care groups, patient advocacy organizations and Democrats,” making it “the most broadly popular health initiative of Trump’s presidency.” While its fate is not entirely certain, the recently issued final rule may be one of the few last-minute legacies of the Trump Administration likely to be more warmly received by its successor.

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Adult and child holding kidney shaped paper on textured blue background.

Nudging Organ Donation in the United States

Cross-posted from Harvard Law Today, where it originally appeared on November 13, 2020. 

By Chloe Reichel

Nationally and globally, demand for organ transplants outstrips supply. In the United States last year, 19,267 donors made a record-setting 39,718 transplants possible, but nearly 109,000 Americans still remain on the organ transplant waiting list.

Cass Sunstein ’78, Robert Walmsley University Professor and former Administrator of the White House Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs in the Obama administration, believes “Nudge theory” might help bridge this gap between supply and demand.

Sunstein joined scholars and leaders in transplant services on Friday, Nov. 6 to discuss strategies to boost rates of organ donation at “Nudging Organ Donation: Tools to Encourage Organ Availability,” an event hosted by the Petrie-Flom Center for Health Law Policy, Biotechnology, and Bioethics at Harvard Law School.

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