PITTSBURGH — A Mars woman volunteered to donate a part of her liver to a brother in need after moving back to the area last year.
Now, the two of them can help others as part of a study to improve organ donation acceptance rates and eliminate the need for immunosuppressant medication following organ donation.
Last year, Susan Scibetta accompanied her older brother, Paul, to what had become routine appointments with doctors to check the state of his liver. Paul Scibetta was diagnosed with liver disease in 2016 and his doctors urged him to seek a transplant.
“I had some blood work done that indicated I had some issues with my liver, (and) that progressed,” Scibetta said. “It didn't get worse, but it was definitely at a stage where they felt I would have qualified for a wait list, but I would've been very low on that list.”
For two years, he continued to attend weekly appointments with his doctor to receive treatment and evaluation.
Then, last June, his sister, Susan, moved to Mars.
Still searching for work after her move, Susan Scibetta decided to accompany her brother to one of his doctor's appointments.
“That's where we learned about the living donor program,” Paul Scibetta said. “My sister right away, unselfishly said she'd be willing to do this.”
Hospital staff immediately went to work evaluating the Scibettas to see if they met the criteria for a living organ transplant.
Dr. Chris Hughes was one of the doctors who worked with them.
“First, we make sure the donor is overall healthy because they have to go through an operation, of course, and we want to minimize the risk to the donor,” Hughes said.
Donors and recipients are given numerous physical and psychological evaluations to ensure they could undergo the surgery and recover.
The tests found the Scibettas to be a perfect match, and the doctors scheduled the surgery.
Hughes said arrangements like these are a best-case scenario for those in need of an organ donation.
“When a person doesn't have a living donor, we have to wait 'til they're really sick. When we have a living donor, all we have to do is schedule the operation,” he said.
In the surgery, doctors divide the healthy liver to transplant half of the organ to the patient in need.
The surgery was successful.
Living donations allow patients to receive transplants sooner and potentially find a better match.
They have also led to a study on a way to potentially eliminate the need for immunosuppressant medication.
Hughes said that when a patient receives a conventional organ transplant, they must take immunosuppressants to prevent the body from rejecting the new organ. “The medication is really good at what they do. It's really rare for us to lose a liver to rejection anymore,” Hughes said. “But the medication, as all medication, does have side effects.”
To find a way to eliminate the need for these drugs, UPMC is taking part in a study on the effects of transferring some of the recipients' immune stem cells to the donor in the hope of making the medication unnecessary.
“Normally, I'd be on anti-rejection medication the rest of my life,” Paul Scibetta said. “They're hoping within the next year they'll be able to take me off the anti-rejection medication and my body won't reject the donor's liver.”
Hughes said the procedure could also help recipients accept such organs as kidneys and hearts, which are more prone to rejection.