Organ transplantation has been called the ‘medical miracle’ of the 20th century, and the field has witnessed incredible change in the 60 years since the first successful transplant was performed in Boston in December, 1954. Canada followed suit shortly thereafter, and has always played a pivotal role in the advancement of transplantation. While Canadians can be proud of their country’s record of achievement, many challenges remain. While over 2,000 organ transplants are now performed annually in this country, thousands of Canadians remain on our waiting lists, and hundreds of them die each year without having received the transplant they so desperately needed.  

Canada’s track record in organ donation: Room for improvement

Canada lags well behind many developed nations in organ donation. Given the overwhelming public support for the concept of organ donation, Canada has the potential to be a global leader in this area. The provincial administration of health care and the lack of government investment in organ donation resources in some provinces have certainly contributed to the situation. Until 2008, donation services were provided by a variety of local, regional, and provincial authorities, such as the organ procurement organizations (OPO’s) Transplant-Québec and Trillium Gift of Life Network. Lacking an agency to harmonize their work and strengthen performance across the board, significant provincial and regional variations developed. Canada, unlike almost every other western nation, lacked a national donation and transplantation system and strategy.

Despite this, Canada has always had a cohesive, devoted organ and tissue donation and transplantation (OTDT) community, which includes transplant programs, professional associations like the Canadian Society of Transplantation, OPO’s, patients’ groups, and other stakeholders. Canadian Blood Services (CBS) has been mandated to build on the strengths and experience of this community, and improve system performance. Already, Canadian Blood Services has coordinated a Kidney Paired Donation program resulting in hundreds of kidney transplants performed, which would otherwise not have happened due to incompatibilities between recipients and their donors. The program has received international attention for its efficiency and capability. As outlined by Graham Sher, Canadian Blood Services continues on a variety of initiatives that will help Canada realize its true potential in organ donation.

Building bridges in innovation: The Canadian National Transplant Research Program

In an era of stagnating resources, better collaboration and sharing of capabilities are essential to excel in research and innovation. In response to a concerted push from Canadian researchers, the Canadian Institutes of Health Research, along with other funding partners, created the Canadian National Transplant Research Program (CNTRP).  The CNTRP represents a unique collaboration between the country’s scientists, with the goal of increasing the availability of organs for transplantation, and of improving the health and quality of life of those who have received a transplant.

Led by Drs. Lori West of Edmonton and Marie-Josee Hebert of Montreal, CNTRP has recruited over 100 investigators from across the country and in every discipline, and has linked the OTDT community with our colleagues in bone marrow and stem cell transplantation, bringing out previously untapped commonalities. Together we are transforming the way we perform transplantation: from machines that will better preserve fragile organs to methods for preventing rejection, it’s all in the works at CNTRP.

Improving public awareness and engagement: It’s in your hands

Transplantation is often about overcoming personal adversity or realizing our great potential for generosity and altruism. It is, after all, a very human story, and though widespread, it is often no less awe inspiring in 2014 as it must have been in 1954. We rely, too, on those whose lives have been touched by organ donation or transplantation to help raise awareness and mobilize support, not only by putting a face on the story, but by devoting their time and being the agents of change. For James Breckenridge, CEO of the Canadian Transplant Society, a registered charity, the journey has been a highly personal one and highlights the great need for public involvement. Our patients are no longer simply our constituents, but are becoming our partners in defining and achieving goals.

As the President of the Canadian Society of Transplantation, I am privileged to highlight the work of so many dedicated individuals who strive to address these challenges. Our community is grateful for the support of the sponsors who have made this campaign possible. They, too, are valued partners in this effort. What follows is a glimpse of how the Canadian OTDT community is changing how we work and what we do, in order to better serve those whose lives depend on this great endeavor.