By performing bone-marrow transplants along with kidney transplants, doctors in Boston were better able to trick recipients' immune systems into accepting the new organs as if they were their own.
Even though the patients received donor kidneys that weren't a good match, most of them were successfully weaned off of immune-suppressing drugs about a year after their transplants. Normally, patients have to take the drugs, which can have serious side effects, for the rest of their lives.
"It's groundbreaking work," says John C. Magee, director of the Kidney Transplant Program at the University of Michigan, who was not involved in the study. "They've shown that you can reeducate the immune system."
The technique could be applied to other kinds of transplants and used in the treatment of autoimmune diseases, says Megan Sykes, one of many researchers who carried out the work at Massachusetts General Hospital. Sykes is the associate director of the hospital's Transplantation Biology Research Center.
The team has been working for about 20 years to outsmart the immune system by inducing tolerance to a donor organ. In this study, reported in this week's issue of the New England Journal of Medicine, the scientists transplanted bone marrow along with a mismatched kidney, giving patients a kind of hybrid immune system that blended elements of both the donor and the recipient.
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Imagine if doctors could perfect a technology that radically broadens their ability to match donors and recipients. The impact this could have on human health is tremendous!
Read about my own experience donating bone marrow.