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Fall 2013

The Case for Live Donor Liver Transplants

Date: October 1, 2013

“LDLT provides the best possible chance to help our patient population,” says Ahmet Gurakar.
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“LDLT provides the best possible chance to help our patient population,” says Ahmet Gurakar.

Thousands of children and adults who were once in liver failure are alive today because of live donor liver transplantation (LDLT). Yet in recent years, interest in LDLT as a viable alternative to cadaveric donation has waned. In part, that’s likely because of the emergence, in 2002, of a prioritized national model scoring system for wait-listed liver recipients. Those patients with higher MELD (model for end-stage liver disease) scores based on the urgency of their condition—bilirubin and creatinine levels and prothrombin time—can receive cadaveric livers sooner. Even so, the average wait time for a cadaveric liver donation in the United States is 149 days for adults and 86 days for children.

But for those whose MELD scores haven’t risen high enough, a healthy, appropriately matched live donor can shorten the recipient’s wait time significantly, says Ahmet Gurakar, medical director of liver transplantation at Hopkins Hospital.

Though LDLT surgery is technically more complex, he says, “our experienced team does a rigorous workup, and only after the donor has been deemed a good match surgically and psychologically will we consider doing the operation.” Still, ever since a highly publicized donor death in New York in 2002, perceived high risk of mortality to living liver donors persists.

So is it really safe for potential donors to donate part of their livers?

In skilled hands and with standardized protocols the answer is yes, says Gurakar. According to a widely cited 2012 study published in Gastroenterology by transplant experts at Hopkins Hospital, including Nabil Dagher, the mortality of live liver donors does not differ from that of healthy, matched controls during a mean of 7.6 years.

“From the moment a potential donor is identified, our program is exceptionally attuned to that person’s safety,” says Dagher, live liver donor surgical director at Hopkins. Each case is discussed among a team that includes a hepatologist, surgeon, transplant coordinators, living donor advocate, social worker, psychologist, and nutritionist. In all, the process takes between three and four weeks. The age cutoff for adult donors is 60.

After the surgery, it takes about three months for the donor’s liver to regenerate. Roughly 30 percent of the liver is taken from an adult for a child recipient; about 60 percent is resected in adult-to-adult donation. “The liver is a wonderful organ,” says Dagher. “Once a portion of it has been resected, it immediately starts to regenerate and stays in tune with the metabolic needs of the body.”

Johns Hopkins has been performing LDLTs since 1992, and the program recently has been reinvigorated with the addition of Gurakar, Dagher, and Ayman Koteish, live liver donor medical director. Since January 2012, the team has already performed four successful LDLTs—three adult to child; one adult to adult. Most recently here, a firefighter donated part of his liver to his infant daughter. He was back to work in two months, says Gurakar, and he and his daughter are doing well.  Judy F. Minkove