In 1954, a Boston doctor named Joseph Murray removed a kidney from a living patient and installed it into the donor’s twin brother—a gift that added eight years to the recipient’s life. Medicine, especially for chronic renal patients, has never been the same.
Murray won the Nobel Prize for Medicine in 1990, just as a series of increasingly effective immunosuppressive therapies were revolutionizing kidney transplant procedures. The treatments significantly decreased the risk of organ rejection—which meant that donors, living or deceased, no longer had to be the identical twins of recipients.
Since then, kidney transplants have become common, even routine. Transplants offer the promise of freedom to the 400,000 Americans tethered to difficult and exhausting dialysis treatments, which they must endure every few days in order to survive. But demand for donated kidneys far exceeds supply. Currently, more than 90,000 patients are on a waiting list to receive a donor kidney. In 2011, 15,417 patients on the waiting list received kidney transplants—around one-third of these from living donors. And every year, thousands of renal patients die waiting.
For a lucky few who receive donated kidneys, life improves dramatically. Of patients who underwent transplants in 2004, 70 percent had functioning deceased donor kidneys after five years; for patients receiving kidneys from live donors, the success rate was 82.5 percent.
Like any major surgery, donating a kidney poses risks. But studies have found that the procedure doesn’t have any long-term consequences for donors’ health—lifespan, quality of life, and risk of kidney failure are no different from that of the general population.