Researchers at the Stanford University School of Medicine have discovered a treatment that safely gets kidney transplant patients off their lifelong, daily dose of drugs.
The new immune tolerance procedure, which has been in the making for 30 years, not only reduces the long term side effects of immunosuppressive drugs, it is also much healthier for the new kidney and could bring significant health care savings.
The findings, recently published in the New England Journal of Medicine, show that eight of the 12 patients used in the study have been off immune system suppressing drugs for at least a year. None of the 12 recipients has experienced kidney failure or any sort of serious side effects.
Typically, kidney transplant patients must take some 30 pills a day, most of which are needed to prevent their immune system from rejecting the organ. Although the process does prolong life, it is costly and the long term side effects include a higher risk for heart disease, high blood pressure, diabetes and cancer.
Dr. Samuel Strober, an immunologist and professor of medicine at Stanford, is the creator of the new protocol. He says the beauty of the treatment is that the recipient's immune system acts as if there never was a transplant and "casts a blind eye on the foreign tissue of the graft."
Scientists have been searching for years to find ways to stop the body from rejecting a new kidney without the need of lifelong medication for several reasons. The drugs are actually toxic to the kidneys. Plus, no matter how well the tissue match, the meds don’t prevent the immune system from shutting out the new organ, they just retard the process – meaning, inevitably, the graft is rejected and the kidney fails. When this happens, the patient is back on a kidney waiting list or sentenced to a lifetime of dialysis, a mechanical blood filtration procedure that’s needed by more than 400,000 people in the United States today.
A failed transplanted kidney is an expensive venture costing the health care system approximately $80,000 during the year of the failure. In comparison, Strober’s immune tolerance method carries a price tag in the range of $20,000 to $40,000.
The new technique combines targeted radiation of the transplant recipient’s lymph nodes, spleen and thymus with injections of stem cells drawn from the kidney donor. It took more than 30 years to create the concoction, but Stober says he finally came up with just the right mix of ingredients for "avoiding a civil war" between immune systems.