Redefining compatibility in organ transplantation

Posted: January 23, 2023

Applying a glycomics lens to the problem of organ donor-recipient compatibility, GlycoNet researcher Dr. Lori West is advancing the field of organ transplantation.

Dr. Lori West
Dr. Lori West is a GlycoNet researcher and pediatric transplant cardiologist at the University of Alberta.

Approximately 4,100 Canadians are on the waitlist for a life-saving organ transplant. Sadly, each year hundreds of people die waiting for an available match1.

Dr. Lori West, a GlycoNet researcher and pediatric transplant cardiologist at the University of Alberta, is one of the people working to change that statistic by improving organ donation rates and transplant patient care.

“The particular area of organ transplantation that brought me into the glycomics arena has to do with the ABO blood groups,” said West. “The ABO blood groups are defined by the presence of certain glycans, or sugars, on the surfaces of cells and organs.”

These specific sugars can influence whether a donated organ is accepted or rejected by a patient’s immune system.

West’s interest in ABO blood group sugars started out with looking for ways to improve heart transplantation in babies. A few decades ago, infants with major heart malformations had few options, but West’s research changed that. She found that an infant’s immune system didn’t have the same antibodies as an adult’s and that it might not reject a transplanted organ based on blood group compatibility.

“The first baby to receive an intentional blood-group mismatched heart transplant in the world was on Valentine’s Day 1996, and it was completely successful,” said West.

“Not only has this approach to ABO blood group mismatched transplants been adopted around the world now for babies, but the collaboration with carbohydrate chemists and people who understand glycomics has really had an impact on developing new questions…that will allow us to understand the very basic biology of the ABO system in ways that haven’t been possible before.”

Without the need for blood-group compatibility, the donor pool could be expanded to match more patients with the organs they need to live. West continues to work towards this goal with support and collaborations through GlycoNet opening new doors to understanding how specific antibodies are directed against ABO blood groups.

For her leadership in the field of organ transplantation and her breakthrough research in infant heart transplantation, West was appointed as an Officer of the Order of Canada in 2020, but her investiture was delayed to last month due to the pandemic.


1Canadian Blood Services

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