Conference considers compensating organ donors

Could financial rewards for organ donors -- dead or alive -- eliminate the suffering and death caused by the long wait for kidney or liver transplants? A team of transplant physicians, medical ethicists and economists will consider that question, and others, at a two-day conference to be held at the University of Chicago's Gleacher Center, 450 N. Cityfront Plaza, on May 16 and 17.

There are currently more than 54,000 people in the United States waiting for kidney transplants, where the median wait for an organ exceeds three years. The 17,000 people waiting for liver transplants can expect to wait more than two years. Many of those waiting will die before they get a transplant. In 2001, 2,918 people died waiting for a kidney and 1,978 died waiting for a kidney.

The keynote speaker, Gary Becker, a Nobel Prize-winning economist from the University of Chicago, will argue that monetary incentives offered to living donors could increase the supply of organs for transplant "sufficiently to eliminate the long queues in the organ market" without significantly raising the total cost of a transplant.

Until now, discussion of paying for organs has focussed almost entirely on cadaver donors. But Becker argues that there are not enough potential cadaver donors to meet the demand. Currently, only Iran allows payment of living donors.

Such payments, however, could dramatically increase the number of donors, argues Becker, who has worked with economics department colleague Julio Elias to predict the effects of reimbursing organ donors. They estimate that if a kidney were priced at about $15,000, that would attract enough donors to close the gap between supply and demand. Because donating part of a liver involves greater risk and discomfort, the price of a liver would be about twice as high, around $32,000.

At those rates, kidney transplants would increase by almost one-third, from 13,000 (in 2000) to more than 17,000 per year. Liver

Contact: John Easton
University of Chicago Medical Center

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