New transplant centre to explore ways to increase access to organs

Health Minister Gan Kim Yong announced the launch of the SingHealth Duke-NUS Transplant Centre on April 12 during the 23rd SGH annual scientific meeting.

SINGAPORE - SingHealth and Duke-NUS Medical School have launched a new disease centre which brings together all of its transplant expertise, including research and education, in an effort to improve transplant care and increase access to organs.

The SingHealth Duke-NUS Transplant Centre will consolidate all of the medical group's solid organ, tissue and cellular transplantation services.

This includes kidney, liver and heart transplants, as well as corneal tissue, ovarian tissue and umbilical cord blood transplants, among others.

Speaking at the launch on Friday (April 12), Health Minister Gan Kim Yong said: "This new transplant centre aims to harmonise SingHealth's clinical expertise for transplant with its research and education capabilities.

"It will explore ways to improve the transplant survival rates, optimise the quality of patients' lives and keep transplant-related costs affordable for patients."

Leading the centre is Associate Professor Prema Raj Jeyaraj, a senior consultant at the Singapore General Hospital's department of hepato-pancreato-biliary and transplant surgery.

He said the centre will see healthcare professionals from different disciplines, such as dietitians, physiotherapists, nurses and doctors, working together to improve transplant care, increase access to organs and reduce waiting time.

According to the National Kidney Foundation, the average waiting time for a kidney transplant here is nine years, and more than 250 patients are on the waiting list.

Prof Prema Raj said one way to increase the supply of organs for transplantation is to obtain them from donors after circulatory death, which is when the heart has stopped pumping.

Currently, solid organs like the kidney, heart and liver are taken from donors only after brain death, he added. This is because most vital organs quickly become unviable for transplantation shortly after the oxygen supply is cut.

But if doctors are able to retrieve the organs within about 55 minutes of circulatory death, they can still be used for transplants, said Prof Prema Raj.

"There is currently a trial being done at Tan Tock Seng Hospital using kidneys from donors after circulatory death. We want to extend that to other organs. I think that will reduce our need for living donors," he said.

On the research front, the centre will look at developing treatment strategies to reduce the need for lifelong immunosuppressants, by improving the body's tolerance for transplanted organs.

It will also explore the possibility of developing technology to 3D bioprint organs.

The centre will also work with the National Organ Transplant Unit and other institutions such as the National University Centre for Organ Transplantation to improve education and awareness of organ transplants among healthcare professionals and the public, Prof Prema Raj added.

The launch was held on the first day of the hospital's 23rd annual scientific meeting.

In the first of four planned plenary lectures, the director of the National University Health System Centre for Healthy Ageing, Prof Brian Kennedy, spoke about preventing diseases by targeting the ageing process.

He said research on mice has shown that some existing drugs like metformin, which is used to treat type 2 diabetes, and rapamycin, an immunosuppressant used to prevent organ transplant rejection, may also have anti-ageing properties.

He called ageing the "climate change of healthcare" and said it is the largest risk factor for a range of chronic illnesses like cardiovascular diseases.

A mindset shift towards preventative medicine is needed to counter Singapore's increasing healthcare burden as the population ages, he added.

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