In 1958 Jean Dausset, a French scientist, discovered genetic characteristics of leucocytes on cell walls that differ for each individual. In 1965, he described the first group of antigens which is now known as the HLA-system (human leucocyte antigens).
Prof. Dr. Jon J. van Rood, a young physician from Leiden researched and proved that matching the HLA-type of donor and recipient had a positive effect on the outcome of transplantation. In 1967 he founded Eurotransplant. The patient oriented allocation of organs was such an improvement that the services of Eurotransplant were sought by transplant centers in the Netherlands and beyond.
Until the mid sixties transplant surgeons matched donor and patient mainly by blood type. Patients had to wait until a matching donor was found in the center were they were treated. In Leiden, Prof. Dr. Jon J. van Rood chose a new approach. Experiments convinced him that the HLA-type of donor and recipients influenced the results of transplantation. But, the probability of finding a donor with a matching tissue type was slight. To make the best possible match he needed a central database of all patients waiting for a donor kidney.
For this reason, Van Rood founded Eurotransplant in 1967. Twelve transplant centers in three countries participated voluntarily and the information of their transplant candidates was registered by Eurotransplant. The centers reported donors and Eurotransplant made the best possible match. The outcome of kidney transplants improved spectacular.
What started as a scientific experiment soon became a foundation whose services were sought by transplant centers in several European countries. A period of rapid growth followed. At the end of 1970 Eurotransplant was active for 68 centers in six countries: Austria, Belgium, Luxembourg, West-Germany, the Netherlands and Switzerland. Eventually Switzerland withdrew from Eurotransplant, but in 1991 East-Germany joined in, followed in 1999 by Slovenia, in 2007 by Croatia and on July 1, 2013 by Hungary.
Several former Eastern European countries are currently interested in cooperating with Eurotransplant. This helps them bring the quality of transplantation medicine to a higher level.
During the seventies Eurotransplant started allocating donor livers. A few years later Eurotransplant expanded its services with the allocation of hearts and pancreas. In 1988 the allocation of lungs started and since 1999 intestines are exchanged, although at a small scale.
Since its foundation, Eurotransplant has allocated donor organs for 125 thousand transplants. From the start till the present, Eurotransplant works on a constant improvement of its allocation. In 1996 the Eurotransplant Kidney Allocation System (ETKAS) was introduced. This sophisticated system supports a patient oriented allocation of kidneys, balancing medical and ethical principles. The same year the Acceptable Mismatch program started fulfilling its purpose: finding a suitable organ for highly immunized patients.
The Eurotransplant Senior Program, also known as the ‘old for old’-program, started in 1999. Organs of donors of 65 years or older are allocated to recipients of the same age group, without taking into account the tissue characteristics.
Starting in 1994, the organization of Eurotransplant underwent a process of democratization. In 1996 an Assemby was installed, thus giving the transplant centers a say in managing Eurotransplant. From then on the members of the Advisory Committees were selected by the national transplant societies. After almost thirty years Prof. Dr. Jon van Rood resigned and was succeeded by Prof. Dr. Yves Vanrenterghem as President, until he retired in 2005 and Prof. Dr. Bruno Meiser was elected.
The most recent step in de process of democratization was the formation of the Eurotransplant Council in 2009. The Council strengthens the bonds within Eurotransplant by offering a permanent platform for the exchange of information between the national authorities of the member states and the Eurotransplant Board.