Sign up now - Donate LifeWhat Organs and Tissue Are Used

This glossary provides a brief definition about the organs and tissues used in donation along with some facts and figures to provide you with a better understanding of the critical need for organ and tissue donation. The numbers provided were updated in February 2007 and are provided by the United Network for Organ Sharing and Gift of Life Michigan.

Bone and soft tissue

Bone forms the skeleton, which provides support, protects organs from injury and allows the body to move. Bone is a complex combination of inorganic, mineral components and living tissue. Connective tissue may be elastic, fibrous or hard, helping to support and bind organs and tissues together. The gift of bone and connective tissues helps individuals with various orthopedic and neurosurgical conditions. These tissues will be used in a variety of back, joint and leg surgeries such as hip replacement, knee reconstruction and spinal fusion. A bone and soft tissue donation offers children with severe fractures or bone cancer the opportunity to live a happier, healthier life. Adults with degenerative bone and joint diseases also gain from bone donation by enjoying increased mobility and comfort. More than 100 people may benefit from one bone and connective tissue donation. The donation is accomplished by creating an incision down each leg so that the long bones may be removed. Tendons, ligaments and fascia, which attach bone to muscle, are also removed. After the bone and soft tissues are recovered, procurement technicians replace the bone with prosthetics.


The cornea is the clear tissue covering the front of the eye that assists with bending and focusing the light that enters the eye.  Nationally, more than 46,000 people have their sight restored each year thanks to cornea transplants. The cornea is removed through careful excision, keeping the posterior globe of the eye intact. This procedure minimizes bruising and swelling around the donation site. Corneas can be used for transplant to restore sight, for research or both, based on donor and family consent and quality of the tissue.

In certain cases, the entire globe of the eye may be recovered if an individual chooses to donate corneas. The cornea is later removed from the globe under controlled, laboratory conditions. The corneas are examined and prepared for transplant into two separate recipients. The sclera, or white part of the eye that provides structure, can also be used for transplantation. The remainder of the eye tissue can be used for research purposes if given authorization.

The mission of Eversight Michigan (formerly the Michigan Eye-Bank) is the restoration of sight. Eversight Michigan makes the gift of sight possible by bringing together corneal tissue donors and the people for whom a transplant is literally a second chance for sight. Its commitment to the restoration of sight continues with its objective to educate people about the ongoing need for eye donors. For more information, please visit the Eversight Michigan Website.


The heart is a hollow muscular organ located between the lungs that rhythmically contracts to pump blood throughout the body. Almost 3,000 patients are currently waiting for a heart transplant in the United States, 59 live in Michigan. A heart transplant can save the life of an individual whose heart is failing due to heart disease, infection or birth defect.

Heart valves

The human heart has four valves that open and close to control the one-way flow of blood through its chambers. It is the valves' opening and closing that creates the distinct sound of the heartbeat. A heart-valve donation can benefit many children and adults suffering with damaged or diseased heart valves. The decision to donate heart valves, veins and arteries or the entire heart does not interfere with open-casket funeral arrangements.


Hepatocytes are cells located in the liver and aid in metabolism, protein synthesis and production of substances such as cholesterol and bile. If the entire liver is not suitable for transplant, the cells can be removed and injected into a waiting liver recipient. The hepatocytes begin to function as a temporary therapy until a healthier liver can be found.


The kidneys are a pair of large bean-shaped organs that filter wastes from the blood, which are released as urine. Nearly 72,500 patients are waiting for a kidney transplant in the United States, with Michigan residents accounting for 2,524 of them. The need for kidneys is the fastest and largest growing concern in transplantation. A kidney transplant can save the life of a person whose kidneys are nonfunctional due to diseases such as diabetes or hypertension.


The liver is a large wedge-shaped organ that is responsible for a number of important functions, including making bile, metabolizing proteins, carbohydrates and fats and cleansing the blood of toxins. Almost 17,000 patients are currently waiting for a liver transplant in the United States, with 389 of those in Michigan. A liver transplant can save the life of an individual suffering from various diseases, including cancer and hepatitis.


The lungs aid the body in respiration by removing carbon dioxide from the blood and replenishing it with oxygen. Nearly 3,000 patients are waiting for a lung transplant in the United States, 59 are from Michigan. A lung transplant can save the life of an individual suffering from diseases such as cystic fibrosis and pulmonary hypertension. Lungs can be transplanted as a pair into one recipient, or separated with each lung going to a different recipient, based on need.

Lymph nodes, spleen and blood

Lymph nodes are small glands that are part of the immune system and help protect the body against infections and disease. The spleen produces lymphocytes, or white blood cells, filters and stores blood and destroys old blood cells. Blood is comprised of many different substances, including red and white blood cells, plasma, platelets, proteins and water. Samples from the lymph nodes, spleen and blood are required to help match organs with potential recipients.


The pancreas is a long, flat gland that helps with digestion and regulates blood sugar by producing insulin and glucagon. Almost 4,200 patients are waiting for a pancreas transplant in the United States, with 90 of them in Michigan. Many diabetics are in need of a pancreas transplant, which will eliminate the need for daily insulin injections.

Pancreatic islet cells

Islet cells are irregular cell clusters found in the pancreas that produce insulin and glucagon, which regulate blood sugar. Also known as the "islets of Langerhans" after their 17th century German discoverer, they are used to treat people with insulin dependent diabetes, or diabetes mellitus. The entire pancreas is recovered from a donor. The islet cells are then processed and injected into the recipient. A successful transplant reduces or eliminates the need for an insulin-dependent diabetic to take multiple, daily insulin shots for up to two years.


Skin is the largest organ and is the body's outer protective covering. It has a number of functions, including protecting the body from light, heat, dirt and disease, regulating body temperature and storing water, fat and vitamin D. A skin donation can be used in several ways. For example, it can aid in the healing process for severe burn victims. Donated skin grafts will protect recipients from infection while promoting regeneration of their own skin. It can also be used in reconstruction for victims of a disfiguring injury or disease. Skin is removed only from the back and legs, and is approximately the thickness of a peeling sunburn. Skin donation does not interfere with open casket funeral arrangements.

Small intestine   

Located between the stomach and large intestine, the small intestine has an important role in helping the body digest and absorb food. Almost 240 people are waiting for an intestine transplant in the United States. A small intestine transplant can save or improve the lives of people whose intestines have failed due to disease or birth defect.

Veins and arteries  

Arteries and veins, along with capillaries, circulate blood throughout the body. Donated veins can be used to help support the body during complex procedures such as a heart bypass and increase circulation, reducing the chances of amputation in patients with poor circulation in their legs.  Veins can be removed at the same time as bone and soft tissues. Arteries can be used in special cases where additional blood vessels are needed to perform a liver transplant. The recovery of arteries may cause difficulty in embalming procedures.

The gift of donation may be designated for research, transplant or both. Following is a brief description of each option.


Organs and tissues may be used in studies to better understand disease processes and treatments.  Organ and tissue research has helped healthcare professionals and scientists learn more about diseases such as diabetes and cystic fibrosis. Eye research on glaucoma, retinal disease, eye complications of diabetes and other sight disorders has helped advance the discovery of the cause and effects of these conditions - leading to new treatments and cures.


When the designated wish is "transplant only," every effort will be made to match the donor's organs, tissue and eyes with suitable recipients. However, there are some instances in which donation is not possible. Under these circumstances, the donated organs must be discarded if they cannot be transplanted.

Transplant and research

The person's wish for donation is honored as every effort is made to find a suitable recipient for the organs, tissues and eyes. However, if a recipient cannot be found or the organs and tissues are determined to be unsuitable for donation, they can be contributed for research purposes. If this option is chosen, a recovery agency may place the donated organs and tissues with a qualified facility that can use them to learn more about disease processes and treatments.