Desperation and frustration are prompting some patients with failing organs to turn to modern technology and the Internet to bypass lengthy organ donation waiting lists and find donors themselves.
The practice, which has resulted in several transplants already through a locally run Web site, has sparked a discussion over its ethics, a topic debated Thursday (May 12) at a Harvard Medical School (HMS) Medical Ethics Forum, “Soliciting Organs on the Internet,” sponsored by HMS’s Division of Medical Ethics.

Jeremiah Lowney, medical director of Canton, Mass.-based, said work on the site was begun in 2003 after the father of one of Lowney’s patients died while waiting for an organ to become available. The patient, Lowney said, ran a Web site that matched employers with potential employees and asked whether a similar site could be run to match organ donors and recipients.

Seven people have successfully matched with donors and had transplant surgery through the Web site so far, Lowney said, with another 22 matched and in the presurgery stage.

Lowney acknowledged that some have voiced ethical concerns about the site, and asked whether it undercuts the nationwide organ donation system, the United Network for Organ Sharing (UNOS). But he said the site had become increasingly necessary as waiting lists have lengthened – to 89,000 from just 31,000 in 1993.

Seventeen people die each day while waiting for an organ, some of whom may have been saved through stepped-up efforts to identify and match donors.

“Is it ethically acceptable to let 17 people per day die while waiting for an organ transplant while there are potentially thousands of people out there willing to donate?” Lowney asked.

The harshest criticism of the site came from Douglas Hanto, Lewis Thomas Professor of Surgery at HMS, chief of the division of transplantation at the Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center, and chair of the Ethics Committee at the American Society of Transplant Surgeons.