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Transplanting the Immune System: Easier on Patients?

MADISON, Wisconsin – There are nearly 35,000 organ transplants done in the U.S. every year.

Once patients receive their transplant, they face a lifetime of medications that keep their body from rejecting the new organ, but those medications can cause serious side effects.

Now, a groundbreaking procedure has successfully changed that for one woman.

Having breakfast together was nearly impossible for Barb Okey and her husband after her kidney transplant.

The 24 pills she took before breakfast ruined her appetite and the side effects left her tired. But that’s all in the past now.

In 27 years of doing transplants, Dixon Kaufman, MD, PhD, FACS, Ray D. Owen Professor and Chair Division of Transplantation Department of Surgery School of Medicine and Public Health at University of Wisconsin- Madison has never done one like Okey’s. Her sister’s kidney was a perfect match, but then both women took part in a second pioneering transplant to give Barb her sister’s immune system.

“We had the transplant and the next day I started radiation. I had to do radiation for 10 days. That was to suppress my immune system. After the 10th day they gave me my sister’s stem cells,” Okey said.

“The immune cells start to multiply, so she has not only the kidney from her sister but a little bit of her sister’s immune system. And we call that phenomenon chimerism and that’s where you have a dual immune system,” Dr. Kaufman said.

Immunity that accepts the new kidney and leaves Barb drug-free.

“It’s the start of hopefully a long progression of trials that will allow more and more people to if not completely eliminate the medicines, significantly reduce them,” Kaufman said.

“I feel very, very lucky, very lucky,” Okey said.

Okey is just the second person in the U.S. to take part in the national trial pioneering the dual transplant. The hope is that the procedure will one day be available to transplant recipients who are not perfect matches with their donors, and possibly even to those who have had transplants in the past.