AHS celebrates 50 years of renal transplant in Edmonton

January 26, 2017

EDMONTON – This year, Alberta Health Services (AHS) is celebrating 50 years of kidney transplantation in Edmonton.

The first organ transplant in Alberta was a kidney transplant, performed at the University of Alberta Hospital (UAH) on Jan. 15, 1967, by the late Dr. William Lakey. The patient lived for two months.

Since then, more than 2,800 kidney transplants have been performed at the UAH, the only local site for kidney transplantation, and the outcomes and life expectancy for patients have significantly improved. Today, 95 per cent of patients in the local renal transplant program survive the first five years. Half of the successful kidney transplants from a living donor are still functioning at 20 years and, of those from deceased donors, half are still functioning at 10 years.

Dr. Rex Boake, who returned to the Edmonton renal transplant program in 1969 after completing a fellowship at the University of California-Los Angeles (UCLA), acknowledges how difficult it was for patients in the early years of the program.

“Kidney transplantation was in its infancy; we didn’t have access to the antirejection medication or the tissue typing and blood matching for donors and recipients there is today,” says Dr. Boake, who retired from practice in 1996.

“For patients in renal failure, life on dialysis wasn’t great. Transplants could offer a better chance at life but only if the patient’s body didn’t reject the organ. In the late ’60s and early ’70s, living two to five years after a renal transplant was considered a success.”

Freda Ainley had been on dialysis for two years in Edmonton when, on April 12, 1972, she received the call that a deceased donor kidney with 49 per cent compatibility was available.

“I wasn’t doing well on dialysis but I was scared. I hadn’t seen anyone with a successful transplant,” says Ainley. “My 12 year-old daughter, Gillian, looked at me and said, ‘You’re not like anyone else. Just because it didn’t work for them, doesn’t mean it won’t work for you.’”

Ainley called back to see if the organ was still available. Dr. Boake performed her transplant two days later. This April, Ainley will celebrate the 45th anniversary of her kidney transplant, making her transplanted kidney one of the longest-surviving donor kidneys in the world.

Dr. Ron Moore, surgical director of the Edmonton renal transplant program, points out the need for donor kidneys outstrips the available supply.

“We currently have 170 patients in our program awaiting a kidney transplant,” says Dr. Moore. “Instead of leading healthy, active lives, these patients wait up to five years, depending on their blood type, for a suitable donor. To meet the challenge of the organ shortage, we have expanded the types and age of the kidneys we use for transplant and are exploring ways to recondition donated organs.”

Last year, the UAH renal transplant program performed 96 adult and pediatric kidney transplants, 31 of which were from living donors.

“I’m so pleased to celebrate 50 years of kidney transplantation in Alberta,” says Sarah Hoffman, Minister of Health. “Thousands of people have a new lease on life thanks to the expertise and success of our transplant staff. I urge Albertans to register their intent to become organ and tissue donors at so even more Albertans can have a chance at receiving a life-saving transplant.”

Albertans are encouraged to register their intent to donate online through the Alberta Organ and Tissue Donation Registry; and, most importantly, to discuss their wishes with their family.

The program’s 50th anniversary will be marked with celebrations throughout the year by kidney recipients and donors, past physicians and staff, along with the current program’s three kidney surgeons, two kidney-pancreas surgeons, eight adult and two pediatric nephrologists,
10 co-ordinators, one social worker, one pharmacist, two data entry staff and six support staff.

The renal transplant program is supported by the University Hospital Foundation, and the University of Alberta’s Faculty of Medicine & Dentistry, Alberta Transplant Institute, a multidisciplinary, virtual institute that brings together researchers, clinicians, educators/scholars, and patient-partners to work towards common goals of improving transplantation and donation in Alberta, and achieving global impact in cutting-edge research, improvements in patient care, education, and advocacy.

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The University Hospital Foundation has supported the University of Alberta Hospital’s transplant program since the hospital first pioneered transplants in 1967. Community donors have given more than $9 million since 2004 to change and save lives by helping advance transplant patient care; investing in intensive care units, operating rooms and rehabilitation spaces; and funding research that has allowed the University of Alberta Hospital to raise the international standard of transplant care.

The University of Alberta's Faculty of Medicine & Dentistry is home to western Canada's leading transplant institute. The U of A houses databases that facilitate transplant quality improvement, conducts drug trials with innovative immunosuppressive protocols and trains many of the world's transplant physicians and surgeons.

Alberta Health Services is the provincial health authority responsible for planning and delivering health supports and services for more than four million adults and children living in Alberta. Its mission is to provide a patient-focused, quality health system that is accessible and sustainable for all Albertans.

For media inquiries, contact:

Sharman Hnatiuk
AHS Communications