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A Future with Eye Transplants Emphasizes Need to Donate

Posted on February 16th, 2017

Pittsburg scientists claim we can expect the first successful human eye transplant to happen within the next 10 years.

Although organs have been transplanted for decades, the human eye, with its complex network of arteries, nerves, and blood vessels, has been a challenge that surgeons have not been able to tackle yet. They’ve practiced with rats, dogs, and sheep, but never with a living person.

The team at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center understand it’s a longshot, but with funding from the U.S. Department of Defense, they are getting closer to understanding the optic nerve and keeping the cells alive long enough to coax regrowth in a donor. The Department has special interest in the project due to the high number of traumatic eye injuries experienced by American soldiers in combat.

Past explorations

The first reported eye transplant attempts in animals began in the 19th century and peaked during World War II. But as recently as 1977, the National Eye Institute reported that whole eye transplants would never be successful due to issues of immune system rejection, inadequate blood flow, and lack of nerve function.

New ground

Recent developments in transplant medicine, including immunosuppressive drugs and microsurgical techniques, have made transplants that were previously impossible a reality.

Last fall, the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center team published a paper outlining the successful transplant of a rat’s eye into another rat, including joining of the optic nerves. Since then, the organ remains healthy. Eventually other rodent and primate transplants will be attempted before a human eye is transplanted.

The Canadian factor

Although eye transplants are not yet a reality, we as Canadians can do our due diligence to ensure we are ready as organ donors. This Valentine’s Day marks National Donor Day, a time when we can promote why becoming an organ donor makes a positive impact on our society.

Over 1,600 Canadians are added to organ wait lists to receive a lifesaving transplant annually. Others need cornea, tissue, bone marrow, blood, and platelet donation. Although 90% of Canadians support organ and tissue donation, less than 20% have made legal plans to donate.

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As our population ages, the need for organ and tissue donations will increase. To learn more about organ donation in Canada, read this or register to be an organ donor here.