Tens of thousands of Americans need a life-saving kidney transplant, a list that grows every day. It can take years for patients to find a kidney that their immune systems won't reject. Many die waiting.
For two decades, doctors at Sharp Memorial Hospital have quietly practiced a technique that increases the chances of a successful transplant from a living donor — someone who donates a kidney while still alive. It's called desensitization, a process of rebooting the immune system of patients who are at a higher risk of rejecting a kidney.
Its effectiveness was long questioned by the medical community until a landmark study released in March 2016 revealed positive results. The study, published in The New England Journal of Medicine, found that "desensitized" patients had better long-term survival when compared with patients who remained on the national waiting list or found a match from a deceased donor.
"Desensitization is not for every patient, but we've seen success for many years in patients who are the right fit," says Dr. Barry Browne, medical director of abdominal transplant at Sharp Memorial Hospital." We know this process can save lives."
About a quarter of patients in need of a kidney transplant are especially hard to match. This is because they have antibodies in their blood that would immediately attack most donated kidneys. Desensitization filters out these harmful antibodies from the blood, and patients take strong medications to keep them from coming back. The immune system regenerates new antibodies that are less likely to attack a new organ. With a weakened immune system, patients are at a higher risk of an infection and other health problems, so it's critical to watch them closely during the treatment, Browne says.
"But this study shows the benefits can outweigh the risks," he says. "Desensitized patients have a better chance of survival than someone who stays on the waiting list."
The effect of desensitization lasts for a limited time, so this technique can only be done on a recipient with a living donor. These operations can be scheduled, unlike patients on the waiting list who don't know when a deceased kidney will become available.
To learn more about living donation, visit Living Donation: Frequently Asked Questions.
For the media: To learn more about kidney desensitization and to speak with a Sharp Memorial doctor, contact Senior Public Relations Specialist Erica Carlson at firstname.lastname@example.org.