Since the first organ transplant was performed here in 1967, The Ohio State University has helped thousands of patients and their families navigate the life-altering journey that comes with preparing for and getting an organ transplant.
Faculty in the Ohio State College of Medicine conduct ongoing research resulting in biomedical discoveries that translate into treatments and interventions for organ disease and that provide excellent transplant outcomes above the national average. This gives patients of The Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center Comprehensive Transplant Center (external link) who have a failing heart, lung, kidney, liver or pancreas a second chance at life.
Since 2016, the Comprehensive Transplant Center has experienced 92% growth in the number of lives saved through organ transplantation. In April 2021, the center reached an impressive milestone, performing its 11,000th transplant surgery. Nationally recognized, the center is currently ranked #7 in the United States by volume for all organs transplanted.
Kenneth Washburn, MD (external link), professor of Surgery and director of the Division of Transplantation Surgery (external link) at the Ohio State College of Medicine, also serves as the executive director of the Comprehensive Transplant Center. He leads a team that’s investigating ways to not only improve immune system acceptance of new organs, but repair organs deemed unsuitable for transplantation due to age, disease presence and injury that can occur during organ procurement.
“Our ability to increase organ transplants lies in the ability to rehabilitate and repair organs once considered unusable, so they can be used in transplantation,” says Dr. Washburn. “We have an interdisciplinary team of physician-scientists with vast research expertise, millions of dollars in funding and game-changing technology to propel these biomedical discoveries forward.”
Improving lives through new discoveries
Bumgardner Transplant Immunology Lab
Every patient who receives an organ transplant has an immune reaction that can damage the organ or cause organ rejection. Ginny Bumgardner, MD, PhD (external link), professor of Surgery at the College of Medicine and director of the Bumgardner Transplant Immunology Lab (external link), is investigating immune response to develop immunotherapies to prolong survival of transplanted organs.
“While investigating new strategies for controlling the immune response, we’ve uncovered an immune cell that may predict a transplant patient’s risk of developing antibodies that cause organ rejection,” says Dr. Bumgardner.
Bryan Whitson, MD, PhD (external link), is professor of Surgery, and Sylvester Black, MD, PhD (external link), is associate professor of Surgery at the College of Medicine. Since 2012, they have co-directed Ohio State’s COPPER Lab—the Center for Organ Perfusion, Protection, Engineering and Regeneration—which oversees clinical trials utilizing ex-vivo organ perfusion that places organs on a sterile circuit pump and perfuses them with medicine and nutrients while maintaining conditions that mimic the body’s normal physiology. While on the pump, experts can assess organ function and viability and make modifications to repair or improve organ performance.
This breakthrough discovery led Ohio State to be the first transplant center in Ohio to perform an ex-vivo lung perfusion study in 2016 and the first ex-vivo liver perfusion study in 2019.
“First, we developed several novel therapeutics to inhibit and block inflammation,” says Dr. Black. “Then we created the ability to make repairs at the cellular level, a molecular bandage if you will, that can prevent cellular death and organ dysfunction that can happen during organ procurement and preservation.”
Schenk Transplant Immunology Lab
Austin Schenk, MD, PhD (external link), assistant professor of Surgery at the College of Medicine, runs a lab that investigates transplant immune response, specifically T cell biology, to develop immunotherapies to prolong survival of transplanted organs. Because current state-of-the-art immunosuppression drugs do not ensure indefinite transplant survival, many are lost to chronic rejection years post-transplantation.
“We want to gain a deeper understanding of the basic immunologic mechanisms that cause allograft rejection so we can develop novel immunosuppressive strategies to keep transplanted organs functioning for a patient’s entire lifetime,” says Dr. Schenk.
Ohio State's Transplant Biorepository (external link) provides high-quality, clinically annotated samples from normal and diseased organs for all Ohio State-affiliated research. Founded in 2017, the lab has processed more than 5,500 tissue samples, both normal and diseased, facilitating innovation and allowing investigators to vie for competitive grants and high-impact publications.
“Human tissue is in high demand for research, as animal models do not always yield accurate results,” says Brenda Reader, PhD (external link), lab director and senior research associate in the Division of Transplant Surgery at the College of Medicine. “We support 12 separate investigators and outside research firms such as Battelle, Boehringer Ingelheim, Natera and CareDx.”
COVID-19-related lung transplants
In December 2020, Ohio State’s Comprehensive Transplant Center (external link) successfully performed the first double-lung transplant in central Ohio in a patient recovered from COVID-19. Co-led by David Nunley, MD (external link), professor of Internal Medicine at the College of Medicine and medical director for the lung transplant program, and Bryan Whitson, MD, PhD, professor of Surgery at the College of Medicine, they oversee a lung transplant team that’s performed an additional 12 covid-related lung transplants to date, with no deaths.
“Lung transplant recipients with previous COVID-19 infections have significant inflammation that can make the surgery more challenging than usual,” says Dr. Nunley. “We’ve had 40-plus referrals, approximately 25% from out of state, after patients were turned down for transplant at other centers.”
Consistently ranked as a top-20 transplant program in the nation, Ohio State is committed to improving access to quality liver, kidney and lung transplant evaluation and education through regional clinics. The first opened in 2017 in Dayton, and two additional clinics launched during the pandemic. A partnership with the Healthy State Alliance established locations at Mercy Health—St. Rita’s Medical Center in Lima and The Jewish Hospital in Cincinnati.
“The clinical growth has shown the need for innovation,” says Dr. Washburn. “As a major academic health center, Ohio State has the resources, the commitment and the capability to identify matches and find new ways to make the most of every gift of life.”