New treatment for kidney transplants

Seven's On Call with Dr. Jay Adlersberg
September 9, 2008 3:29:07 PM PDT
Osteoporosis, cataracts and cancer are just some of the side effects faced by kidney transplant patients. These terrible conditions are often caused by the anti-rejection medication taken to increase the chance of success, but a new transplant procedure may eliminate the need for all of the pills.

"I just never knew what it was like to really be healthy," transplant recipient Jennifer Searl said.

At age 12, Searl had a kidney transplant. From then on, she traded one health problem for another as the anti-rejection medications reeked havoc on her body.

"I had a very big problem with the kind of disfiguring growth on my legs and feet -- so bad that by the time I got to college, I really couldn't walk," she said.

From not being able to walk, to running marathons. That's the progress that she has made thanks to a second kidney transplant. It was done using a new procedure that eliminated more than half of her post-transplant medication.

"It's like a dream come true for me, basically," she said.

Dr. David Sachs and his team at Massachusetts General Hospital are testing out the new technique. Patients who undergo a kidney transplant receive a bone marrow transplant during the same surgery.

"We have to eliminate the existing immune system first in order to train the new immune system," Sachs said.

Doctors say the additional bone marrow transplant tricks the immune system into thinking the new kidney is part of the patient's own body, recognizing donor and host cells as its own.

"The patient doesn't need to take immunosuppressant drugs to prevent rejection," he said. "There is no rejection because that transplant is considered by the immune system as part of the patient's own body."

For Searl, the second transplant using this technique has provided a second chance at life -- a life without debilitating side effects.

Patients who undergo this new technique must be kept in an isolated, sterile environment for the first few weeks after surgery to prevent infection. Doctors say they hope to use this procedure for other types of transplants in the future.

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