If you ever find yourself needing an organ transplant, you probably will consider yourself very lucky to find a donor match. Unfortunately, many folks in those shoes aren’t so fortunate, and die before a matching donor organ is identified. So clearly, anything that can be done to cast a greater net over potentially matching donor organs is a very welcome development.
Even if you do find a match, you will likely be faced with taking immunosuppressant drugs for the rest of your life to combat organ rejection, which in turn increases your susceptibility to a variety of complications, including infection, cancer, diabetes, and cardiovascular disease. And even then, your body may still reject your new organ.
But in what is hailed as a potential game changer in transplantation science, a small preliminary study suggests that both issues can potentially be addressed by transplanting stem cells from the organ donor to the recipient.
The study, recently published in journal Science Translational Medicine, tested the ability of donor stem cells to trick the recipient’s immune system into treating their new kidney, received from the same donor, as their own, ultimately saving both the organ from rejection and the patient from having to take immunosuppressants.
All of the 8 patients in the study received kidneys that were “less than perfect” matches; that is not necessarily unusual, but they faced a major uphill battle in preventing rejection. But what is unusual is that 2 days after the kidney transplant, they also received an infusion of immune cells bioengineered from the donor. And amazingly, 5 of those patients were able to discontinue their use of immunosuppressants completely after a year.
Furthermore, they show no signs of organ rejection during follow-ups 6 to 20 months after stopping those drugs.
While experts find this a very enticing development, it is not yet clear if these patients’ acceptance of their new organs will translate into a lack of early warning capabilities to detect other foreign bodies, like infections or malignancies. Furthermore, it is also a very small pilot study, and much follow-up study is needed. But 2 pioneering transplant surgeons at Massachusetts General Hospital say it “may potentially have an enormous, paradigm-shifting impact on solid-organ transplantation.” That’s great news.
Guest editor: Dave Schlosser, Patient Navigator LLC