Lindsey Tanner

CHICAGO: It turns out you can recycle just about anything these days — even kidneys and other organs donated for transplants.

Recently in Chicago, in what is believed to be the first documented case of its kind in the United States, a transplanted kidney that was failing was removed from a patient while he was still alive and given to somebody else.

There have been other cases since the 1980s of transplant organs being used more than once, but they were rare and involved instances in which the first recipient died.

Typically when transplanted organs fail in living patients, doctors throw them away. But with more than 73,000 people awaiting transplants nationwide, some specialists say doctors should consider trying to reuse more organs to ease the shortage.

“The need for kidney transplantation doesn’t match our capacity,” said Dr. Lorenzo Gallon, a Northwestern University transplant specialist who oversaw the kidney recycling operation in Chicago. “People die on dialysis” while awaiting kidneys.

That was the possible fate awaiting two strangers. A research letter describing the unusual case appears in today’s New England Journal of Medicine.

The donated kidney lasted just two weeks in the first patient, a 27-year-old Illinois man. The same disease that ruined his kidneys started to damage the new kidney, given to him by his sister. He was getting sicker, and doctors needed to act fast if they were going to save the organ. With permission from the man and his sister, they removed it last July and retransplanted it into a 67-year-old Indiana man.

The Illinois man is back on dialysis and will probably get another transplant eventually.

Still, reusing a transplanted organ can be tricky — and riskier — because surgeons have to deal with scar tissue that typically forms around an organ as the body heals from the operation.

Also, Wayne Shelton, a bioethicist at Albany Medical College in New York, said the practice might raise ethical questions. He said doctors need to make sure patients who are offered reused parts understand all the risks and are not coerced into accepting such organs. And because these cases are so rare, there is little data on how patients with recycled parts fare, Shelton noted.

Dr. Jonathan Bromberg, director of transplantation at the University of Maryland Medical Center, praised the Northwestern doctors but said organ recycling is unlikely to become commonplace because it would be rare for an already transplanted organ to be healthy enough to be reused.

In Boston in 2009, a man died shortly after a getting a new heart, and the organ was in good enough shape to be transplanted into someone else. A 2005 medical journal report detailed three U.S. cases involving donor livers reused after the initial recipients died, and said they were among 11 similar cases between 1987 and 2005.

Joel Newman, a spokesman for the United Network for Organ Sharing, said previous retransplants in the United States “have occurred when the original recipient has died soon after a transplant but the organ is still able to function. To our knowledge (the Chicago case) is the first publicly reported instance where a kidney has been removed from a living person due to the risk of organ failure and retransplanted.”