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Nebraska donors make lasting contributions to medical research

October 3, 2019

Zackary Williams was a strong, determined and happy little boy — especially considering he was born with a rare heart defect called T.A.P.V.R. as well as pulmonary hypertension.

Despite beginning his life with machines that helped him breathe and acquiring brain damage after open-heart surgery, “what he had on the inside of his body never showed on the outside,” said his dad Richard Myers.

Richard and Zackary’s mother, Andi Williams, continued to watch their young boy beat the odds and live a life full of smiles, happiness and human connection.

But in June 2018 shortly after summer break had started, Zackary was back in the hospital. His heart and lungs began to get worse, and he went into cardiac arrest. When the doctors told Andi there was nothing more they could do, she and Richard only needed 30 minutes to decide what they would do next.

They decided to move forward with organ donation in the hopes that Zackary could save and heal others.

And he did just that. Zackary’s kidney went to a father of four children.

His pancreas was recovered for research purposes.

Zackary Williams

“Zackary was here for a reason,” Andi said of her first-born son. “His whole life I’ve known he was supposed to teach somebody something, and now after his death he’s able to do that.”

When a potential donor is identified, many medical tests take place to determine which organs and tissues are suitable for transplantation to someone in need.

The organs and tissues not suitable for transplant may be donated for research purposes instead.

“If you donate for research, it’s not instant gratification,” said Dr. Alexey Kamenskiy, but years down the road it could be the thing that eliminates dialysis and the need for transplant at all, potentially changing the lives for millions of people.”

This ability and profound impact on medicine is something many family members and loved ones of a potential donor find healing.

“Our donor families want their loved one to help as many people as possible,” said Family Services Manager Amanda Brewer. “Medical research and education are another way to touch the lives of others,” Brewer added.

Live On Nebraska works with both local and national research partners. Below, you can find a short description of each of the studies Live On Nebraska helped facilitate in 2019.

Understanding Peripheral Arterial Disease

In 2014, Drs. Alex Kamenskiy and Jason MacTaggart began a partnership with Live On Nebraska to aid in their research of peripheral arterial disease. Since then, they have accumulated the largest library of peripeheral arterial tissue and share their samples and findings around the world.

Twenty percent of seniors suffer from disease of the peripheral arteries, which are found in the leg. The disease leads to blockages in the arteries that supply blood to leg muscles and skin. The donated arteries allow Drs. Kamenskiy and MacTaggart to not only study the cause and progression of the disease, but also how best to repair it with interventions and surgery.

Combating Catastrophic Bleeding

In another project, Drs. Kamenskiy and MacTaggart use arteries to investigate ways to stop catastrophic bleeding. This would allow more time to transport trauma victims from the location of injury to a hospital.

Their research would help Nebraskans who live in remote areas and military members who endure traumatic deaths that are potentially preventable and related to severe bleeding. Specifically, the researchers are looking at ways to place internal tourniquets that control bleeding from areas of the body that cannot be compressed by conventional tourniquets like on the chest, abdomen or pelvis.

Women’s Increased Risk for Cardiovascular Disease

Dr. Halvor McGee, an Assistant Professor at the Creighton University School of Medicine, used his research project to study how bacteria and viruses contribute to the disease atherosclerosis. Patients with this disease suffer from hardened arteries, which causes the formation of plaque within the arteries.

McGee has studied the plaques found in the carotid and femoral arteries. Carotid arteries are found on the left and right side of the neck, while femoral arteries are found in the thighs. Plaques can be found in both types of these blood vessels.

Analyzing Agricultural Lung Disease

When it comes to understanding lung diseases that affect residents in more rural areas, Nebraska donors play an important role in that process. Particularly interested in diseases that occur due to dust particles from hog farms, Dr. Kristina Bailey utilizes donated lungs for these purposes and others.

Bailey is a pulmonary critical care physician at the University of Nebraska Medical Center. Her research focuses on donated lungs and airways to study what causes lung disease and what can be done to make diagnoses and treatments better.

In Omaha, Bailey oversees the lung and tissue samples that are distributed to her and other research projects. These studies aim to understand lung diseases such as asthma, cystic fibrosis and agricultural lung disease. Bailey is also directly studying the effects aging has on pneumonia and more frequent diagnoses in older persons. Several other projects across the country also benefit from the donated samples.

Making More Hearts Available for Transplantation

Dr. Marian Urban, a cardiothoracic surgeon at the University of Nebraska Medical Center, works with Dr. John Um of Nebraska Medicine to study functioning hearts that have been refused by transplant centers. Urban’s own separate research project will soon also study hearts that become dysfunctional once a patient is declared brain dead.

Whenever a patient is declared brain dead, there may be some changes in heart performance and function. This can sometimes be reversed within 48 hours, allowing the heart to be transplanted. Sometimes, the heart does not recover and is unable to be transplanted.

Dr. Urban’s eventual goal, he said, is to “learn what makes those hearts dysfunctional if they were perfectly functioning before brain death.” With the knowledge regarding what makes those hearts dysfunctional, the hope is that doctors could intervene in future cases to then heal and optimize failed hearts, which would allow them to be used for transplantation in recipients.

Addressing Early Pancreatic Disease Detection

Dr. Paul Grandgenett is a research associate professor at the University of Nebraska Medical Center. As the director of the Pancreas SPORE Rapid Autopsy Program, he currently studies early disease detection and pancreas cancer while working to develop new and effective treatment strategies.

Through pancreas and liver donations from Live On Nebraska, Grandgenett hopes to aid in basic science research and translate the results into clinical trials for patients. Livers can also be affected by the disease and are part of his study, too.

Pancreatic cancer is the third leading cause of cancer deaths in the United States with the lowest survival rate of just 9 percent, he said. He added that an estimated 55,440 Americans will be diagnosed with pancreas cancer and 44,300 will die from the disease.

Preventing Incisional Hernias

Chair of the Creighton School of Medicine Department of Surgery, Dr. Robert Fitzgibbons is researching abdominal incisional hernias that occur in patients after surgery. When a person has an operation of the abdomen, Fitzgibbons says that between 15-20 percent of the time a hernia will develop through the incision that was made.

In the hopes of finding a better treatment for these hernias or even a preventative medication that could decrease the number of incidents, Fitzgibbons and a team of Creighton University scientists, research fellows and students are comparing tissue samples from Live On Nebraska and samples taken from patients after an incisional hernia repair surgery.




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