Biology talk on organ donation
Four A level biologists gave a thought-provoking and comprehensive talk on the research, process and ethics of organ donation, in the light of the new ‘opt-out’ system being introduced next spring.
Emilia McFadzean, Irene Llinares-Perales, Kate Tracey, Cleo Byrne – who are all intending to study medicine at university – gave a well-researched presentation on organ donation in the Helikon Centre, to pupils from all year groups. We are also grateful to St Benedict's parent Mrs Pokorny, who gave a personal account of her family's experience.
First, they talked about the organs that can be transplanted; these include the liver, kidney, pancreas, heart, lung, intestine, cornea, as well as the lesser known ones such as bone marrow, connective tissue and vascularised composite allografts – a transplant of several structures that may include skin, bone, muscles, blood vessels, nerves and connective tissue.
They then covered the ‘opt-in’ system we currently have (whereby a potential donor gives permission for their organs to be used after their death), and outlined the pros and cons of opt-in against opt-out. The opt-in system is a very clear expression of intention, reducing the likelihood of someone becoming an organ donor against their will, and is less likely to hold religious issues. Opt-out, on the other hand, could potentially give rise to disputes over consent, possibly undermining trust in the NHS. It may also place the burden of decision upon bereaved families. There is clearly a need, they argued, for raising awareness of organ donation and to provide adequate training for medical professionals in discussing options with people.
Kate outlined the reasons for changing to opt-out from Spring 2020. The greatest advantage is that around 700 lives could be saved a year. Awareness is key, however, and people need to start having difficult conversations with their families.
What of the alternatives to organ donation? Since 2000 researchers have worked to bioengineer organs specific to the recipient by decellularising and recellularising the extracellular matrix of an organ. This makes the organ specialised and hence the recipient’s immune system is less likely to reject the organ. Emilia talked about current research into 3D-printed organs, with a small scale, fully vascularised human heart having been 3D-printed.
Finally, Irene explored the ethical issues surrounding organ donations. Is opting out the best way to determine consent? What if someone isn’t aware of the implications of their decisions? What if their family disagrees? With recent developments in the field of genetics, is it more important to allocate time and resources to develop a way to grow organs using stem cells from a person’s own body or to focus on harvesting organs from living individuals?
The talk also addressed the question of prioritising organ recipients, with the huge gap between organs available for donation and people who need transplants.
Many questions followed this fascinating talk, and everyone left the Helikon Centre better informed about this vital issue.