The new lease-on-life enjoyed by organ transplant recipients comes with a price: patients must take anti-rejection drugs for the rest of their lives. But a promising new procedure could eliminate the need for lifelong medication.
South Africa's Louis Washkansky was the world's first heart transplant patient. He died of pneumonia 18 days after his operation in December 1967, because drugs used to prevent organ rejection also suppressed his body's ability to fight infection.
Organ transplants did not become routine until the 1980s with the approval of a new drug, cyclosporine, which prevented rejection without destroying the body's resistance to infection. But anti-rejection medications have had serious side effects and must be taken for life.
Today, Christopher McMahon takes no medications -- four years after his kidney transplant.
"It's been just a blessing. I love not having to get up in the morning to have my daily regimen of medicine," he says.
Eliminating the daily dose of medications involves transplanting not only the kidney, but also the donor's bone marrow, which helps the recipient develop a compatible immune system.
Dr. David Sachs is a physician at Massachusetts General Hospital. "We essentially fool the immune system into thinking the donor's organ is part of one's own body."
The patient, however, must first undergo radiation and chemotherapy to weaken the original immune system -- an exhausting experience.
"It was obviously a tough and difficult process,” says McMahon, “but the rewards were so great it kept me going."
Jennifer Searl is another one of ten kidney transplant patients to successfully undergo the new procedure. "How I'd like to describe a conventional transplant, I say it's a treatment not a cure. And I feel like this is a cure."
This new procedure is currently used only for kidney transplants. But doctors say it could eventually be applied to other organ recipients.