A gift of life from one HIV patient to another


Organ transplants between HIV-positive donors and HIV-positive recipients have given patients living with both HIV and end-stage organ disease, a new chance at life. Photo: Reuters

In a first that gives HIV-positive patients yet another chance for long lives, surgeons at Johns Hopkins University Medical Center in the United States have transplanted a kidney and a liver from a deceased donor who was positive for HIV into two HIV-positive recipients.

The groundbreaking transplant surgeries using organs from an HIV-positive donor ends a 25-year stretch during which the organs of HIV-positive people willing to donate them were rejected for use in transplants.

The experimental procedure follows the 2013 enactment of the HIV Organ Policy Equity (HOPE) Act in the US, which repealed the ban on using such organs for transplantation.

“This is an unbelievably exciting day for our hospital and our team, but more importantly for patients living with both HIV and end-stage organ disease,” said Dr Dorry L. Segev, the Johns Hopkins surgeon who performed the surgeries. “For these individuals, this could mean a new chance at life.”

The liver transplant was the world’s first involving an HIV-positive donor and recipient, and the kidney transplant was the first such surgery in the US, according to the medical centre.

“What we had done before was take HIV-negative organs and put them into HIV-positive people,” Dr Segev said. “Using an HIV-positive organ adds one degree of complexity; now there’s a new strain of HIV being introduced into the recipient. The thing we have to do is just make sure that their HIV regimen gets adapted accordingly.”

Johns Hopkins Medicine has performed the nation's first liver and kidney transplants from donors infected with HIV to recipients also infected with the virus. Dr. Dorry Segev, pictured, was one of the surgeons on the transplant team. (Lloyd Fox/Baltimore Sun/TNS)
Dr Dorry Segev played a key role in lobbying the US Congress to change the ban on the use of HIV-infected organs in transplantation. Photo: TNS

Dr Segev, professor of surgery at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, played a key role in lobbying the US Congress to change the longstanding ban on the use of HIV-infected organs in transplantation.

Under the new law, only transplant recipients who are HIV-positive will be eligible to receive organs from HIV-positive donors.

Still, the change is expected to make hundreds and potentially thousands of transplantable organs available each year to HIV-infected people with end-stage diseases of the kidneys, heart, liver or lungs.

While the surgeries at Hopkins involved the use of organs from a deceased donor, experts expect that in the future, some living HIV-positive donors will step forward to donate a kidney.

There are 121,220 patients listed on the Organ Procurement and Transplantation Network’s waiting list in the US, and another name is added, on average, every 10 minutes. Each day, an average of 22 patients die waiting for an organ.

Of the close to 31,000 organ transplants performed annually in the US, those involving organs from HIV-infected donors will remain a small minority: Experts estimate that each year, 500 to 600 HIV-positive people would die under circumstances that would make their organs available for transplant.

Dr David Klassen, chief medical officer of the United Network for Organ Sharing, said that key questions remain about the new generation of transplants, which are conducted under rules that treat them as research procedures. Among those are whether organs from HIV-positive donors will be as resilient as organs that have come from uninfected donors.

Dr Klassen also said that in matching donors and recipients, physicians will have the added challenge of trying to ensure that an HIV-infected recipient does not get an organ from a donor infected with a more aggressive strain of the virus. In most cases, that fit can be assumed if both recipient and donor have taken the same anti-viral medications and done well on them.

But in cases in which a deceased donor’s HIV infection is diagnosed at the time of his or her death, that may not be possible, he said. The new procedures underscore how dramatically the prognosis for HIV-positive patients has changed.

“For years when HIV first came on the scene, it was a fatal illness: Everybody that got it died,” Dr Klassen said. HIV-positive patients were not likely to get listed on the waiting list because their prognoses were poor. With the success of anti-viral cocktails in treating HIV-infected people, “patients really have good prospects for long-term survival,” Klassen said. – Los Angeles Times/Tribune News Service

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