Study Suggests Breakthrough in Organ Transplants
Patients who are lucky enough to get a transplant for a failed organ usually face a lifetime on anti-rejection drugs, which are expensive, dangerous and not always effective.
But in the future, those drugs may not be needed. A new study suggests that patients receiving an organ that’s less than a perfect match can be protected against rejection by a second transplant — this time of the organ donor’s imperfectly matched stem cells.
Though preliminary, the new study is being hailed as a potential game-changer in the field of transplantation, a mystifying development that could offer hope to hundreds of thousands of patients who await or have received donor kidneys and depend on a harsh regimen of daily anti-rejection pills.
GRAPHIC: Donor stem cells in transplants
The small pilot study, reported Wednesday in the journal Science Translational Medicine, describes a novel regimen that combined old-fashioned cancer treatments with 21st century cell therapy to induce five patients’ immune systems to accept donor kidneys as their own despite significant incompatibility.
If the technique proves successful in a larger group of people, future transplant patients may need to take anti-rejection drugs only briefly, and some who rely on them now could discontinue them safely. The recipients of kidneys as well as other organs, including heart, lung, liver and pancreas, might also benefit from access to a wider pool of organs.
The strategy could offer hope, too, for patients receiving bone marrow transplants to treat blood cancers, speeding the process of finding a donor by allowing physicians to use stem cells that today would be rejected as incompatible.
“Few transplant developments in the past half century have been more enticing,” wrote pioneer transplant surgeons James F. Markmann and Tatsuo Kawai of Massachusetts General Hospital, in a commentary accompanying the study. If borne out, they wrote, the findings “may potentially have an enormous, paradigm-shifting impact on solid-organ transplantation.”
In an interview, Markmann said that the greatest benefit of techniques described in the new research would be to greatly improve the lives of transplant patients by freeing them of a lifetime reliance on anti-rejection drugs.