Organs that can be donated 

Organ donation can lead to life-saving transplants or help improve a person's health and quality of life. It's also possible to donate tissue.

Organs that can be donated include:

  • kidneys
  • liver
  • heart
  • lungs
  • small bowel
  • pancreas

Several types of tissue can also be donated. See tissue donation to learn more.

Kidneys

A kidney can provide a much better quality of life to someone who has end-stage renal failure (ESRF). Renal failure is where the kidneys stop working properly.

Kidney transplants give better long-term survival rates and quality of life than dialysis (where some of the kidney's functions are artificially replicated). Kidneys used for transplant can come from a living person or from someone who's died.

The demand for donated kidneys is higher than for any other organ. During 2013-14, 3,242 kidney transplants were carried out, 1,114 of which were from living donors. This is a significant increase from 2011-12.  

Liver

liver transplant is often considered for people with end-stage liver disease. The survival rate after one year of having a liver transplant is about 93%.

In 2013-14, a total of 872 liver transplants were carried out in the UK. For adults, the average waiting time for a liver transplant is about 145 days and 72 days for children.

Heart

Most heart transplants are carried out on people with severe heart failure caused by coronary heart disease or cardiomyopathy (diseased heart muscles) who can no longer be helped by medication or other surgery. The survival rate after one year of having a heart transplant is about 81%.

In 2013-14, 205 heart transplants were carried out in the UK. The average waiting time for a suitable heart to become available for transplant is around 441 days for adults and 214 days for children.

Lungs

Lungs can be damaged by illnesses such as cystic fibrosis (where the lungs become clogged with thick, sticky mucus) or respiratory conditions such as chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), which is often caused by smoking.

People are considered for a lung transplant when their lung function can't be significantly improved by medical therapy or surgery.

Lung transplants have an 82% success rate one year after surgery, and heart-lung transplants have a 85% success rate.

In 2013-14, 218 lung transplants were carried out in the UK. The average waiting time for a lung transplant is around 265 days.

Small bowel

small bowel transplant (intestinal transplant) is usually recommended if there's not enough bowel left to absorb nutrition (short bowel syndrome), and when a person is having difficulty with total parenteral nutrition (when nutrition is given through a vein).

Small bowel transplants are often carried out at the same time as a liver and pancreas transplant. This is called a multivisceral transplant.

Small bowel transplants are fairly uncommon. Only 26 transplants were carried out during 2013-14. On average, patients wait six months for a transplant of this type.

Pancreas

A successful pancreas transplant is the only treatment that can restore complete insulin independence and blood sugar levels in people with type 1 diabetes.

In 2013-14, 214 pancreas transplants were carried out in the UK. The average waiting time for a combined pancreas and kidney transplant for an adult is around 392 days.

Tissue donation

Unlike organs, tissues can be donated up to 24 hours after someone has died, and in some cases up to 48 hours. Tissues can be used to treat a wide variety of conditions, some of which may be life threatening.

The most common tissues that can be donated are:

  • the cornea (the transparent tissue layer at the front of the eye)
  • bone
  • skin 
  • heart valves
  • tendons
  • cartilage

As there's a longer period of time between someone dying and being able to donate tissues, it means donors can be screened for possible infectious agents and a pool of available tissue can be established.

Corneas

Corneas can be transplanted to restore the sight of a person with an eye condition or eye injury. Patients closest in age to the donor are usually selected as recipients.

Cornea transplants can be carried out under either general anaesthetic or local anaesthetic. During 2013-14, 3,660 people had their sight restored through a cornea transplant.

Heart valves

Heart valves can be used to help children born with heart defects. They're also used for adults with diseased or damaged valves.

Bone

Bone can be used to help improve or restore mobility. Bone grafts can also be used in a variety of orthopaedic procedures (those that involve muscles, joints, tendons, ligaments and nerves), including joint replacements and spinal surgery.

Bone transplants can also reduce the need for amputation (where a limb is surgically removed) in people with bone cancer.

Skin

Skin can help save the lives of people with severe burns. A skin graft helps reduce pain and prepares underlying tissue for later treatment. It also helps reduce scarring. However, it can take a number of grafts to successfully treat someone with severe burns.

Tendons

Tendons are tough, flexible tissues found throughout the body that connect muscles to bone and cartilage. Donated tendons are usually used to reconstruct injured knees in young people, usually following sports injuries.

Cartilage

Cartilage is used to help reconstruct parts of the body following injury or during joint replacement surgery.

Common reasons for a cartilage transplant include injury or wear caused by conditions such as osteoarthritis (a common type of arthritis that causes inflammation of the bones and joints).

Page last reviewed: 24/11/2014

Next review due: 24/11/2017