Kidney Transplantation Living Donors

In addition to waiting for a kidney from a deceased organ donor, patients of Northwestern Medicine in need of a kidney transplant may want to consider living donation. Living donation is a transplant surgery performed between two living adults or an adult to child. Although most of us are born with two kidneys, only one working kidney is needed to sustain a normal life. This allows a healthy person the opportunity to donate a kidney to someone with kidney failure.

There are many benefits to receiving a kidney from a living donor, including:

  • No waiting period, and the surgeries can be scheduled at a convenient time for both the donor and recipient
  • A kidney from a living donor often works sooner than a kidney from a deceased person and typically lasts longer

Due to the length of the kidney waiting list, the waiting period for a deceased donor kidney can be many years. Thus, having a living donor can decrease your waiting time for a kidney transplant, allowing you to avoid dialysis or stop it earlier. This also helps reduce the number of patients on the national wait-list and allows those patients without a living donor option to receive a deceased donor kidney sooner.

Who can be a living donor?

A living donor can be a blood-related family member or a non-blood-related individual such as a spouse, friend or acquaintance. Potential donors must be in relatively good health, both physically and emotionally, and over the age of 18.

All potential living donors must:

  • Be in good health
  • Undergo a thorough evaluation process
  • Understand and accept the surgery and its risks, including medical, pychosocial and financial implications
  • Volunteer to be a transplant donor
  • Understand and accept that the outcome of the transplant might not be as expected
  • Be able tell the team clearly their reasons for donating once they are aware of all of the benefits and risks

An increasingly popular form of living donation is called altruistic, non-directed organ donation, in which people donate organs as a humanitarian gesture, without a specific recipient in mind. These organs are distributed to patients on the Northwestern Medicine list using the UNOS priority system or as part of a kidney paired donation.

The goal of the Northwestern Medicine Living Donor Kidney Program is to make every effort to ensure that a transplant takes place when a medically viable living donor steps forward.

Blood type and immune incompatibility

Blood Type and Immune Incompatibility DiagramApproximately one-third of living donors who come forward are not matches for their intended recipient due to incompatible blood type and immune system differences. Most blood types form antibodies against the other blood types, meaning most patients cannot get blood transfusions or organ transplants from donors with blood types different from their own. This is called blood-type or ABO incompatibility. In the past, a blood type or immunological incompatibility would have ruled out a donor and recipient pair. Now there are two options: desensitization treatment and kidney paired donation.

Desensitization treatment

Kovler Organ Transplantation Center at Northwestern Memorial Hospital is one of only a handful of centers in the country offering these pairs desensitization treatment that will allow the donor’s kidney to be placed in the intended recipient.

A week or two before surgery and a week or two after the transplant, these patients undergo a variety of treatments tailored to the recipient’s antibody titers. Treatment may include plasmapheresis (plasma exchange), intravenous immunoglobulin (medication to prevent antibodies from returning) and/or monoclonal antibody treatment such as rituximab (Rituxan®). These levels are checked frequently to determine if additional treatments are needed.

Typically, three to five treatments are required before transplant. At the start of the plasmapheresis treatments, the patient receives anti-rejection medications to help prevent production of new anti-HLA antibodies. These anti-rejection medications are the same medications that the patient will continue to use after transplantation. Plasmapheresis treatments may be necessary following transplantation to reduce the risk of rejection. The number of treatments will depend on antibody levels. The majority of patients receive three to six treatments.

The goal is to reach acceptable antibody levels with the least amount of immunosuppression. Long-term outcomes of kidney transplants following desensitization have been excellent and comparable to compatible donor transplants.

Kidney paired donation

Another option for donor and recipient pairs who aren’t compatible is kidney paired donation (KPD). KPD transplants are made possible when a kidney donor who is incompatible with the intended recipient is paired with another donor and recipient in the same situation.

Northwestern Medicine Kovler Organ Transplantation Center team has performed more than 200 KPD surgeries to date, the largest of them being an eight-way paired exchange that involved eight donors and eight recipients. KPD exchanges are becoming more common and signal a trend in the field of organ transplantation. They have the potential to dramatically increase the number of patients who receive transplants, and reduce or eliminate time spent on the waiting list.

About the surgery

When a living person donates a kidney, the donor and recipient surgeries are done on the same day. The operation performed to remove the healthy kidney from the donor is called a nephrectomy. These surgeries are done using a laparoscopic, or minimally invasive, approach. Patients undergoing laparoscopic kidney removal have significantly less pain, a shorter hospital stay and return to normal life much faster than those who undergo the more traditional “open” procedure. Bear in mind that this is still a major surgery and there are some risks involved.

Why Northwestern Medicine?

Northwestern Medicine Kovler Organ Transplantation Center continues to be the largest living donor kidney transplant program in Illinois, and a leader nationally, performing more than 300 living donor kidney transplants over the last three years. Not all transplant centers have the expertise to perform laparoscopic donor surgery. Northwestern Medicine is fortunate to have specially trained transplant surgeons who have successfully performed more than 2,000 laparoscopic donor surgeries since 1997, using video technology to allow the kidney to be removed safely through small incisions on the abdomen.

Convenient satellite clinics

In addition to the downtown campus, we are available to see patients at any one of our transplant outreach clinics:

  • Oak Brook: Serving the western suburbs
  • Glenview: Serving northern and northwestern suburbs
  • Crest Hill/Joliet: Serving the southern and southwestern suburbs
  • Portage: Serving northern Indiana and southwest Michigan

Our focus on community outreach benefits patients and their physicians by providing pre-kidney transplant services closer to home.

Related Resources



  • American Association of Kidney Patients (AAKP)*: AAKP exists to serve the needs and interests of all kidney patients and their families by helping them deal with the emotional and social impact of kidney disease.
  • American Kidney Fund*: The fund provides direct financial assistance to kidney patients in need and education for those with and at risk for kidney disease.
  • Atlas of Diseases of the Kidney*: The online edition from ISN Informatics Commission and NKF Cyber-Nephrology provides information on kidney disease, treatment and research, including books and PowerPoint presentations.
  • Coalition on Donation*: The organization promotes organ donation and provides education about it.
  • Gift of Hope Organ and Tissue Donor Network*: Website of the not-for-profit organ procurement organization that works with hospitals and donor families in the northern three-fourths of Illinois and northwest Indiana. The organization is responsible for the recovery of organs and tissue for medical transplantation in the service area, as well as for professional and public education on organ and tissue donation.
  • Home Dialysis Central*: This website is dedicated to educating kidney patients about home dialysis.
  • Kidney School*: This interactive, web-based learning program is designed to help people learn about kidney disease and its treatments, so they can take a more active role in their care.
  • Life Options*: This program of research, research-based education and outreach helps people live long and well with kidney disease.
  • MedlinePlus*: This is a trusted source that covers all aspects of organ donation and provides easy access to medical journal articles, extensive information about drugs, an illustrated medical encyclopedia, interactive patient tutorials and the latest health news.
  • National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases*: Part of the National Institutes of Health, this organization is involved in kidney disease research and treatment options.
  • National Kidney Foundation (NKF)*: This is the main foundation with 50 affiliates dedicated to providing prevention programs, educational services and materials for kidney patients, transplant recipients, communities and funding for research. NKF Affiliates: Illinois, Indiana, Ohio
  • National Organ and Tissue Donation Initiative*: The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services is undertaking this initiative to ease the critical shortage of organ and tissue donors by building a national community of organ sharing.
  • Nephron Information Center*: This site covers all aspects of kidney disease with many links to other sites.
  • Organ Procurement and Transplantation Network (OPTN)*: OPTN is a unique public-private partnership that links all of the professionals involved in the donation and transplantation system. Its goals are to increase the supply of donated organs available for transplantation and the effectiveness and efficiency of the United Network for Organ Sharing (UNOS).
  • Polycystic Kidney Disease Foundation (PKD)*: PKD Foundation’s mission is to promote research to find a cure for PKD and improve the care and treatment of those it affects.
  • The Renal Network 9/10*: This network facilitates the achievement of optimal wellness for renal disease patients.
  • Renal WEB*: Vortex website of the dialysis world offers patient education and the latest information and news for kidney disease professionals regarding treatment of kidney disease.
  • Transplant Living*: This is the United Network for Organ Sharing patient education site for all transplant patients.
  • TransWeb*: TransWeb's mission is to provide information about donation and transplantation to the general public to promote organ donation and to provide transplant families with information dealing specifically with transplant issues.
  • United Network for Organ Sharing (UNOS)*: Through the UNOS Organ Center, organ donors are matched to waiting recipients 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. Through its policies, UNOS ensures that all patients have a fair chance at receiving the organ they need—regardless of age, sex, race, lifestyle, religion, or financial or social status. UNOS members include every transplant program, organ procurement organization and tissue typing laboratory in the United States.
  • U.S. Transplant—Scientific Registry of Transplant Recipients (SRTR)*: The SRTR supports the ongoing evaluation of the scientific and clinical status of solid organ transplantation in the United States.
  • Worldwide Kidney Disease Community*: This online resource brings together people with kidney disease, in a worldwide community dedicated to improving patient quality of life.

Support groups

The following associations have support groups available to help patients and their families through a transplantation:

Legal Information

By clicking on these websites, you are leaving the Northwestern Medicine website. These websites are independent resources. Northwestern Medicine does not operate or control the content of these websites. By visiting these websites, you agree to this third party’s terms of use for their website.