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Kidney Transplants Become More Successful With Stem Cell Therapy

Using recipient’s own stem cells may reduce the need for anti-rejection medications that usually accompany kidney transplants or even make these medications totally unnecessary, new study of the Cell Transplant Center and Diabetes Research Institute at the University of Miami Miller School of Medicine says. Study results were published in the Journal of the American Medical Association on March 21, 2012.

The need for immune suppression and powerful anti-rejection medications remains one of the major difficulties of organ transplantations. Currently, transplant recipients are administered very powerful immunosuppressants to prevent body surveillance cells from attacking the transplant–the job they usually do when foreign invaders enter the body. What anti-rejection drugs do is just destroying these surveillance cells. However, there is a price to pay for the immune suppression: it is a higher risk of infections and even cancer.

Still, there is a chance to reduce immune suppression or make it unnecessary altogether with the stem cell therapy. The group of scientists from Miami Miller School of Medicine together with their colleagues from Xiamen University in China organized a study to test the effect of stem cell treatment on kidney transplantation. They recruited 159 people aged from 18 to 61 who had serious kidney disease and were on dialysis. These people also had well-matched relatives ready to donate them a kidney.

The patients were randomly divided into three groups: the first received conventional treatment including the standard doses of immune-suppressing medicine knows as calcineurin inhibitors (CNIs). The second group, in addition to the treatment protocol for the first group, received their own mesenchymal stem cells, while the third group received reduced dose of immune suppression drugs (80 percent of the standard) and stem cell therapy.

Though survival rates were similar among groups (13 to 30 months), the researchers have found that involving patients’ own stem cells in the process of kidney transplantation reduced transplant rejection rate. They attributed this to stem cells ability to naturally suppress surveillance cells. In the first group treated conventionally, rejection rate equaled 21.6 percent six months after the treatment, while in the second and the third groups that were treated with stem cells in addition to standard therapy it stood at 7.5 and 7.7 percent, respectively.

Apart from that, the patients who received stem cells had their kidney function improved earlier after the transplantation compared with the group on conventional treatment. Moreover, one year after the transplantation, they also had lower risk of opportunistic infections (by 60 percent).

Despite the criticism from other researchers based on the fact that immune suppression was used long-term in all groups of study participants, the study authors expect that toxic medications used to suppress recipient’s immune system will be successfully replaced with stem cells in the future.