In the anguishing wait for a new kidney, tens of thousands of patients on waiting lists may never find a match because their immune systems will reject almost any transplanted organ. Now, in a large national study that experts are calling revolutionary, researchers have found a way to get them the desperately needed procedure.
In the new study, published Wednesday in the New England Journal of Medicine, doctors successfully altered patients' immune systems to allow them to accept kidneys from incompatible donors. Significantly more of those patients were still alive after eight years than patients who had remained on waiting lists or received a kidney transplanted from a deceased donor.
The method, known as desensitization, "has the potential to save many lives," said Dr. Jeffery Berns, a kidney specialist at the University of Pennsylvania's Perelman School of Medicine and the president of the National Kidney Foundation.
It could slash the wait times for thousands of people and for some mean the difference between receiving a transplant and spending the rest of their lives on dialysis.
Researchers estimate about half of the 100,000 people in the United States on waiting lists for a kidney transplant have antibodies that will attack a transplanted organ, and about 20 percent are so sensitive that finding a compatible organ is all but impossible.
In addition, said Dr. Dorry Segev, the lead author of the new study and a transplant surgeon at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, an unknown number of people with kidney failure simply give up on the waiting lists after learning that their bodies would reject just about any organ.
The process is expensive, costing $30,000, and uses drugs not approved for this purpose. The transplant costs about $100,000. But kidney specialists argue that desensitization is cheaper in the long run than dialysis.