News Release
A photograph of Emily Vail, who is standing in a hallway lined with posters.
Emily Vail, MD, MSc

PHILADELPHIA— A new study by Penn researchers examined, for the first time, the differences in lung transplant graft outcomes from organs recovered from the two types of deceased organ donor care facilities operating in the United States. The research, published today in JAMA Network Open, offers insights that could improve the organ donation and transplantation process for patients across the nation. 

In the U.S., deceased organ donors are traditionally cared for in hospitals, which provide intensive care and testing needed to rehabilitate organs, identify transplant recipients, and perform organ recovery surgeries. Over the past two decades, some donors have been transferred from hospitals to donor care units (DCUs), which provide similar services but focus solely on deceased donors. Two types of DCUs currently operate in the US: independent – located outside of acute-care hospitals- and hospital-based.

Researchers analyzed lung donation rates and lung transplant survival outcomes from almost eleven thousand deceased donors who underwent organ recovery procedures between April 2017 and June 2022. The researchers hypothesized that lung transplant survival would not significantly differ between organs recovered from donors managed in these two types of units. However, the study showed that while independent donor centers generally saw higher donation rates, recipients of lungs from hospital-based DCUs had longer survival. 

“These insights could drive improvements in organ donor management practices nationwide, ultimately enhancing the quality and availability of donated organs," said Emily Vail, MD, MSc, an assistant professor of Anesthesiology and Critical Care in the Perelman School of Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania and Senior Fellow at the Leonard Davis Institute of Health Economics, who led the study. The study underscores that the care system for deceased organ donors is evolving, with the potential to significantly improve organ quality and increase the number of available organs per donor.

Vail's research is particularly crucial given the fragile nature of lung tissue and the stringent criteria for lung donation. Only about 20% of deceased donors are eligible to donate lungs, making efficient and effective donor management practices vital.  

The Gift of Life Donor Care Center at Penn Medicine, established in late 2022, is one of at least 15 hospital-based DCUs currently operating in the United States. Gift of Life transplant coordinators work with a multidisciplinary team of critical care physicians, nurses, respiratory therapists and pharmacists to  provide specialized care for deceased organ donors diagnosed with brain death and authorized to donate organs, while providing support to their families. The Gift of Life Donor Care Center serves hospitals and donor families across the eastern half of Pennsylvania, southern New Jersey, and Delaware.

The research was funded by the Agency for Healthcare Research (5K12HS026372-05), the National Institutes of Health National Institutes of Diabetes, Digestive and Kidney Disease (R01-DK070869, K24AI146137), and the National Heart Lung and Blood Institute (K24HL115353). 

Penn Medicine is one of the world’s leading academic medical centers, dedicated to the related missions of medical education, biomedical research, excellence in patient care, and community service. The organization consists of the University of Pennsylvania Health System and Penn’s Raymond and Ruth Perelman School of Medicine, founded in 1765 as the nation’s first medical school.

The Perelman School of Medicine is consistently among the nation's top recipients of funding from the National Institutes of Health, with $550 million awarded in the 2022 fiscal year. Home to a proud history of “firsts” in medicine, Penn Medicine teams have pioneered discoveries and innovations that have shaped modern medicine, including recent breakthroughs such as CAR T cell therapy for cancer and the mRNA technology used in COVID-19 vaccines.

The University of Pennsylvania Health System’s patient care facilities stretch from the Susquehanna River in Pennsylvania to the New Jersey shore. These include the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania, Penn Presbyterian Medical Center, Chester County Hospital, Lancaster General Health, Penn Medicine Princeton Health, and Pennsylvania Hospital—the nation’s first hospital, founded in 1751. Additional facilities and enterprises include Good Shepherd Penn Partners, Penn Medicine at Home, Lancaster Behavioral Health Hospital, and Princeton House Behavioral Health, among others.

Penn Medicine is an $11.1 billion enterprise powered by more than 49,000 talented faculty and staff.

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