Stem cells could revolutionize organ transplantation

Embryonic Stem Cells. (A) shows hESCs. (B) sho...
Embryonic Stem Cells. (A) shows hESCs. (B) shows neurons derived from hESCs. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Those on both sides of the fence hotly debate the advisability of legalizing the sale of donor organs. Meanwhile, a couple of exciting new developments in using stem cells in transplantation caught my eye recently—using stem cells to protect against organ rejection and a new way to study how they work once they’re put into the organ recipient’s body.

Cut down on immunosuppressants

A small new study suggests that some kidney transplant patients who receive bioengineered stem cells from their donors may not need anti-rejection drugs long term. Five of eight patients who received the stem cells in addition to the organ were able to stop taking immunosuppressants after one year, according to Science Translational Medicine. If they can replicate this in a bigger study, it could mean reducing fewer drugs for transplant patients and being able to use more donor organs for transplants. There are typically around 47,000 people a year waiting for a kidney and that wait can currently take years.

Learn how stem cells work for transplants

Looking into the process of using them, NIH researchers have developed a way to monitor how stem cells function once transplanted. The method uses magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) and consists of two FDA-approved drugs that can attach to cells and a third that is detectable by MRI. The technique is being tested in brain tumor patients who receive transplants of engineered neural stem cells, according to Molecular Imaging. The technique will help doctors understand how many of the cells they transplant actually reach the target organ, and so help them regulate how they administer the cells, plus how to adjust doses and timing.

Wouldn’t it be great if we didn’t have to resort to selling organs—which would likely turn out to produce another crop of heart-wrenching episodes of Law & Order (the original)?

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