Transplants are pretty much the most amazing thing ever: they replace your broken organs with functional ones from someone else. But they carry a heavy cost. They require a difficult and long surgery, and afterwards you have to spend the rest of your life taking drugs to suppress your immune system. This ensures that your body doesn't reject the new organs, but it leaves you eternally susceptible to more diseases than otherwise.
New research could dramatically alter this, and change the life of transplant patients in an utterly remarkable way.
The new method is for transplanted kidneys, and while the study was tiny — only 12 people — the subjects had been off of immunosuppresants for more than a year and their new organs remain undamaged.
A life on immunosuppresants isn't an easy one — they can cause cancer, diabetes, and high blood pressure, and sometimes they don't work, in which case the transplanted kidneys gradually deteriorate until they have to be removed and either replaced by another transplant or else lifelong dialysis.
In order to get around these troubles the researchers created a way of convincing the recipients body that the donor cells are friendly. They carefully targeted and irradiated the patient's lymph nodes, spleen and thymus, temporarily weakening their immune system. They then administer stem cells drawn from the donor's blood. These stem cells differentiate, and become part of the immune system of the recipient, system-wide moles planted in their system to allow the donated organs to be accepted more readily.
This trial was all run on patients with a "perfect match" donation, which came from close relatives with identical versions of all six HLA antigens, giving them a comparatively low chance of rejection. The study now plans to expand to less perfectly matched pairs in the hopes of similar success.
If successful, this method could mean a radical overhaul of the way donations are treated, and a significant change in quality of life for patients. Here's hoping that not only it works, but that it can be expanded to other organs too.
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