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Organ donation - What organs can be donated

NHS Choices Medical Reference

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

There are several different types of organ transplants and the reasons why they may be used can vary. Organs that can be donated include:

A number of other body parts can also be donated (see tissue donation).


A kidney can provide a 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 replaced). Kidneys used for transplant can come from a living person or from someone who has died.

The demand for donated kidneys is higher than for any other organ. More than 1,599 kidney transplants were carried out during 2011-12. The number of living donor kidney transplants being performed is also increasing, with 1,009 kidney donations from living donors being carried out during the same period.

Read more information about kidney transplants.


A liver transplant is often considered for people with end-stage liver disease. In around 86% of cases, transplanted livers still function well a year after surgery.

In 2011-12, a total of 726 liver transplants were carried out in the UK. For adults, the average waiting time for a liver transplant is around 142 days, and for children it is about 78 days.

Read more information about liver transplants.


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 approximately 85%.

In 2011-12, around 141 heart transplants were carried out in the UK. The average waiting time for a suitable heart to become available for transplant is around 253 days.

Read more information about heart transplants.


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 are often the result of smoking.

Patients are considered for lung transplantation when their lung function cannot be significantly improved by medical therapy or surgery. Lung transplants have a 77% success rate one year after surgery, and heart-lung transplants have a 73% success rate.

Around 175 lung transplants are carried out in the UK each year. The average waiting time for a lung transplant is around 412 days.

Read more information about lung transplants.

Small bowel

A small bowel transplant (intestinal transplant) is usually recommended if there is not enough bowel left to absorb nutrition (short bowel syndrome), and when the patient is having difficulty with total parenteral nutrition (TPN). TPN is where nutrition is given intravenously (through a vein).

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

Small bowel transplants are fairly uncommon. Only 22 intestinal transplants were carried out in 2011-12. On average, patients wait six months for a transplant of this type.

Read more information about a small bowel transplant.


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

In 2011-12, 37 pancreas only and 173 pancreas and kidney transplants were carried out in the UK. The average waiting time for a combined pancreas and kidney transplant for an adult is around 278 days.

Read more information about pancreas transplants.

Tissue donation

Unlike organs, tissue can be donated up to 48 hours after the heart has stopped beating. The tissue 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 layer of tissue at the front of the eye)
  • bone
  • skin
  • heart valves
  • tendons
  • cartilage

It is possible to retrieve tissue from a donor up to 48 hours after a person has died. This is very useful because it allows tissue to be screened for possible infectious agents, and enables a pool of available tissue to be established.


Corneas can be transplanted to restore the sight of a person who has an eye condition or eye injury. Patients closest in age to the donor are usually selected as recipients, wherever they live in the country.

Cornea transplants can be carried out under either a general or local anaesthetic. Between 2011-12, 3,521 people had their sight restored through a cornea transplant.

Read more information about cornea transplants.

Heart valves

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


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 prevent a limb from being amputated (surgically removed) in people with bone cancer.


Skin can help save the lives of severe burns victims. 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 treat a severely burned patient successfully.


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


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

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

Medical Review: October 17, 2012
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