Figures obtained by Channel 4 News and the investigative bureau, OpenWorld News, show a significant rise in “high risk” donations, including those from people aged over 60. More than a third of donations now come from this age group.

The number of organs donated by people with a history of drug use has also doubled in the past decade, and about 45 per cent of of donated organs come from smokers.  One-third of kidneys now transplanted fall into the “high risk” category, while “high risk” livers used for transplants are up from 13 per cent in 2003 to 39 per cent in 2012.

The startling rise in these donations is a direct result of the severe shortage of donor organs in the UK.  According to NHS Blood and Transplant, the body  responsible for increasing the supply and quality of transplant organs across the UK,  there were only 1,200 donors last year, yet there are 10,000 people in need of a transplant.

Professor James Neuberger, NHSBT associate medical director,  told Channel 4 News that the UK had the “unenviable” position of being the second highest country in the Europe for refusal rates.  “Although 90 per cent of people say they will take an organ,  when you ask them if they would donate, nearly 45 per cent say no,” he said.

“Therefore we have a shortage of organs. We have people waiting and we have people dying.”

Although Prof Neuberger is keen to point out that there has been a 60 per cent increase in the number of organ donors in the past six years and a similar increase in the number of transplantation, the simple fact is that three people a day die while waiting for a transplant.

This has left surgeons with little option but to turn increasingly to the “high risk” groups which has, in itself, raised a number of ethical issues.

‘Horrific’ death

Colin Grannell, for instance, has led a campaign to ensure patients waiting for transplants are told if the donor organs come from this group, following the death of his daughter from lung cancer in 2012.

Jennifer Wederell was born with cystic fibrosis and was put on the lung transplant list in 2009.  After 18 months, she was told that a pair of lung had become available.  What she was not told, when the doctor ran through the list of risks associated with transplantation, was that the lungs were from a middle-aged person who had smoked 20 a day for most of her adult life.

The hospital subsequently apologised. But Jennifer, who had married the year before her death, only lived for 17 months after that operation.

Tragically, Jennifer’s brother had also died from cystic fibrosis while waiting for a transplant. But Mr Grannell said Richard had died peacefully - while Jennifer’s death from metastatic lung cancer had been “horrific”.

His daughter, he says, would not have taken those lungs if she had known they had come from a 20-a-day smoker. ”I know that because she told me,” he said.  “But she was not given that choice.”

There are guidelines that say the recipient must be told the age and lifestyle characteristics of the donor and Mr Grannell believes that the campaign, Jennifer’s Choice, has raised awareness among clinicians that this must happen.

To sign up to the NHS Organ Donor Register call 0300 123 23 23 or visit