Where does a liver for a transplant come from?

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Manish Thapar, MD
Transplant Hepatology
Most liver transplants come from deceased donors (DCD). A deceased donor is somebody who has donated an organ before they passed away. That’s how that organ is offered for people who are on the waitlist.

A very small percentage of liver transplants are living donations where a family member or friend donates a part of their liver to a person who needs a transplant. That is in the order of single digits -- almost 4% to 5%. It’s done less commonly in the United States than in other parts of the world. There are many historical reasons for it.
 
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Whole livers come from people who have just died. This type of donor is called a cadaveric donor. Sometimes, a healthy person will donate part of his or her liver for a particular patient. This kind of donor is called a living donor.

All living donors and donated livers are tested before transplant surgery. The testing makes sure the liver is healthy, matches your blood type, is the right size, and has the best chance of working in your body.

This answer is based on source information from the National Digestive Diseases Information Clearinghouse.

There are two main types of liver transplantation: deceased donor transplantation and living donor transplantation.

Deceased Donor Transplants

Traditionally the most common type of transplantation, this procedure uses a liver that becomes available when a person dies and his or her family donates the organ for transplantation. Patients who need a deceased donor organ are registered with the United Network for Organ Sharing (UNOS), which maintains the national database of all patients waiting for a deceased donor organ.

Waiting times for a deceased donor liver vary depending on the patient's severity of illness, blood type, and overall demand. Because the liver is able to regenerate, it is possible for a deceased donor organ to be divided, with each half transplanted into a different recipient. Sometimes called "split-liver" transplantation, this resourceful allocation of scarce donor organs enables more patients to receive transplants.

Living Donor Liver Transplants

Living donor liver transplantation is the removal of a portion of a healthy living person's liver for transplantation into a recipient in need. This procedure is made possible by the liver's unique ability to regenerate: after about six weeks, the partial liver in both the donor and recipient will grow and remodel to form complete, functioning organs.

A living donor offers the possibility of earlier transplantation to those in need. Over 18,000 individuals are waiting for liver transplantation, but just over 6,000 deceased donor livers become available each year. Recipients of livers from living donors generally fare better than those who receive livers from deceased donors because they are in optimal health at the time of transplant, and the tissue they receive is usually from a young, healthy donor.

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Important: This content reflects information from various individuals and organizations and may offer alternative or opposing points of view. It should not be used for medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. As always, you should consult with your healthcare provider about your specific health needs.