More than one in five donor livers go unused, study finds

Proportion of donors with diabetes, hypertension increased over 15 years

More than 7,600 donor livers went unused from 2004 to 2010 because of changing population health and medical practices, according to a study in Liver Transplantation.

Using a national database of all organ transplantations, Eric Orman of the University of North Carolina and colleagues tracked all organ donations between 1987 and 2010 to determine the number and cause of discarded donor livers.

The researchers found that the percentage of donor livers that went unused fell from 66% in 1988 to 15% in 2004. By 2010, that percentage crept up to 21%.  

Overall, 107,000 people donated liver tissue between 1988 and 2010, and about 42,000 of those donations came after 2004. Among the post-2004 donations, about 7,600 livers were discarded.

The finding "wasn't too surprising because a lot of those donors are more likely to have fatty livers," Orman says. During the study period, the proportion of older, heavier donors increased. "Those livers are avoided because they can lead to worse outcomes after transplant,” Orman says.

Specifically, the study found that:

  • The age of the average donor increased by nearly a decade between 1988 and 2010;
  • The proportion of donors who were over age 50 rose from 16% in 1988 to 38% in 2010; and
  • The proportion of donors who were obese rose from 15% in 1995 to over 30% in 2010.

In addition, the percentage of donors who suffered from diabetes or hypertension grew from 3% in 1995 to nearly 23% in 2010.

The study findings suggest that population aging and rising obesity rates contributed to a decline in the quality of livers that are harvested and thus increased the number of discarded organs, the authors say (Seaman, Reuters, 1/10).

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