In a first for the UK, doctors have transplanted the kidneys and liver cells of a newborn baby girl to two recipients. The procedure, a milestone in neonatal care, is set to become more common once the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health will release its new set of guidelines this year. Elsewhere, newborn organ transplants were also performed in Spain, USA, Canada and Australia, but this was the first such attempt in the UK. Doctors hope to see other clinics around the country performing the same service, which they said gave comfort to grieving families and had the potential to transform the lives of others.

Making good out of a tragedy

newborn baby transplant

Doctors in the UK perform the first ever baby organ transplant in the country. Image: Smart Mom

Doctors at Hammersmith hospital, UK, describe the case of a newborn girl who had been starved of oxygen before birth and despite resuscitation had profound brain damage. Her brave parents agreed to offer their baby girl’s organs for transplant, once they were informed she had no chance of survival. The operation went ahead when the girl’s heart stopped six days after she was born.

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Operating on an infant is extremely difficult to delicate. During this stage, the kidneys only measure 5 cm in length. These were transplanted to patient whose own had failed, while her liver cells were transfused into a second patient. Information about the patients in question was not disclosed, but doctors say that despite the girl was only a few days old, her organs can sustain other infants, older children and even adults.

“We are pleased the first transplant of organs from a newborn in the UK was a success and we praise the brave decision of the family to donate their baby’s organs,” said Prof James Neuberger of NHS Blood and Transplant.

“The sad reality is for everybody to get the lifesaving transplant they are desperately in need of, more families who are facing the tragic loss of their young child will need to agree to donation.”

Dr Gaurav Atreja, who was involved in the transplant, told the BBC: “This turned out to be a positive thing for the family. They could see something positive out of a negative experience. We hope that neonatal units across the UK will actively start thinking about this noble cause.”

Organs are transplanted from a donor only when the donor is declared brain dead, yet there are no guidelines in this respect for infants less than two months old – doctors are not allowed to declare them brain dead. For babies older than two months, doctors can use a series of neurological tests, including the reaction of their pupils to bright light, to confirm brain stem death. If parents previously gave their consent, then the baby’s organs are quickly harvested.

Child Kidney

Given the success of this novel procedure in the UK, doctors hope that the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health, which is currently reviewing the matter, will allow newborn children to become eligible for donors as well. According to Joe Brierley, a consultant intensivist at Great Ormond Street children’s hospital, in most neonatal units one or two babies who die each year may be suitable organ donors.

“This is about giving the parents of a dying baby choices and their choice to help someone else is a fantastic gift for other parents. It won’t be right for some, but it will be for others,” he said for the Guardian. “Something good can come from the tragedy.”