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Stem cells offer kidney transplant alternative

December 31, 2012 12:00:00 AM PST
People whose kidneys are failing are often forced to wait years to get a transplant. About one in 20 will die during that long wait. For many who do get new ones, there's also a new worry. Now that could soon be a thing of the past.

Lindsay Porter's kidneys swelled to 8 pounds each. She had polycystic kidney disease (PKD) and needed a transplant. She wasn't scared of the surgery, but something did frighten her.

"It was really the medications," said Lindsay.

The anti-rejection drugs she would have to take for the rest of her life and the other medications to help with the possible side effects of those drugs.

Lindsay took part in a pioneering study at Northwestern University. It involved 18 kidney transplants, where the unmatched, unrelated donors gave more than kidneys to the recipients. They gave their stem cells.

"The results have been remarkable," said Dr. Joseph Leventhal, a professor of surgery and director of kidney and pancreas transplantation, Northwestern University.

Dr. Leventhal heads up the study. He says the idea is to create chimerism -- or two immune systems in the recipient.

"So you have peaceful co-existence, if you will, of the donor's stem cells with the other aspects of the recipient's immune system," said Leventhal.

While she started off on the full regimen of anti-rejection drugs, Lindsay was off all the drugs just after one year.

"I take nothing," said Lindsay.

Leventhal says most recipients who went through the procedure had similar results. While there was a risk of the injected stem cells reacting against their bodies, none experienced that.

"It may reshape the landscape of how we do transplant over the next decade," said Leventhal.

With a healthy kidney and no more anti-rejection drugs to take, Lindsay's free to spend her time with her son.

"I'm so glad that I've had the last two years to really be with him 100-percent," said Lindsay.

Lindsay tells us the procedure cured her of her high blood pressure, and her blood type changed to the blood type of her donor. The transplant study she was involved in is ongoing. a second trial is also being planned. It will offer a similar treatment to people, like Lindsay, who've already undergone a living donor kidney transplant.