03/07/2012 08:39 EST | Updated 05/07/2012 05:12 EDT

Nine kidneys transplanted in living donor exchange program

WINNIPEG - Nine Canadians who were living on dialysis are now healthy and doing well following an intricate surgical plan that matched them with kidney donors they have never met.

Each was on the receiving end of a link in a "living donor chain" that saw relatives of the recipients each donating one of their kidneys to a complete stranger in a pay-it-forward type of arrangement.

In addition, the Living Donor Paired Exchange required the participation of two Good Samaritan donors who offered to donate a kidney for purely altruistic reasons — they didn't have a relative on the kidney wait list.

Two sets of chain surgeries were done over three days in February at hospitals in five different provinces, though details of where aren't being released to protect the privacy of the patients.

Many of the recipients had already been waiting for a transplant for years and would have faced more years on dialysis while awaiting a kidney from someone who had died.

And in all cases, their own relatives weren't able to donate to them directly because incompatible blood types or antibodies meant they weren't a match.

Dr. Peter Nickerson of Canadian Blood Services says there are currently more than 4,000 Canadians waiting for a life-saving organ donation.

"Every day and a half one of them dies," he said. "Not only do transplants improve and save lives, estimates suggest the net cost benefit of a kidney transplant over dialysis is about $50,000 per patient per year."

Dr. Brock Wright, chief medical officer for the Winnipeg Health Region, noted that without the efforts of Dr. Nickerson — who is also a Winnipeg transplant nephrologist — and Canadian Blood Services, there would have been no way to match the patients with donors in these types of chains.

"Dr. Nickerson and Canadian Blood Services led the effort nationally to create the LDPE registry," Wright said. "He recognized how a national electronic registry could reduce the number of people on the wait list. To date, more than 120 Canadians, including the nine here, have had a successful transplant because of it."

The donors, who all choose to remain anonymous, say they are thrilled to have participated in the program.

"It came down to personal choice," one says. "The outcome is tremendous. I gave someone the chance to live a stronger, healthier, longer life."