Talaris Therapeutics, Inc., a biotech company based in Louisville, Ky., is edging closer to eradicating the need for immunosuppressive drugs for kidney transplant patients.
In a series of research trials, Talaris is infusing patients with immune system stem cells from their kidney donor to create a donor-derived immune system that accepts the organ without the need for anti-rejection medications. That newly generated system does not attack other parts of the recipient’s body and also fights off infections and diseases as a healthy immune system would.
Talaris is now moving into the final clinical trial, phase III, before submitting for FDA approval. Known as Freedom-1, this trial has 17 sites open throughout the U.S., and Talaris will enroll a total of 120 kidney transplant recipients. One day after receiving their donor’s kidney, 80 people will undergo the company’s therapy, involving the donor’s stem cells and other critical cells that are processed at their facility. Forty will have a regular kidney transplant and remain on immunosuppression to provide a control group.
“The beauty of this procedure is that I don’t have to take all of the anti-rejection drugs,” says Robert Waddell, a finance professional. “I forget that I ever had any kidney issues. That’s how impactful it is.”
The procedure was pioneered decades ago by Suzanne Ildstad as a faculty member at the University of Pittsburgh before she became founding CEO of Talaris and then its Chief Scientific Officer. If approved by the FDA, the method could soon become the standard of care for patients in need of a kidney transplant.
“We are working to find a way to reprogram the immune system of transplant recipients so that it sees the donated organ as [belonging to one]self and doesn’t attack it,” explains Scott Requadt, CEO of Talaris. “That obviates the need for lifelong immunosuppression.”
Each year, there are roughly 20,000 kidney transplants, making kidneys the most transplanted organ. About 6,500 of those come from living donors, while deceased donors provide roughly 13,000.
One of the challenges, Requadt points out, is that kidney transplant recipients aren’t always aware of all the implications of immunosuppression. Typically, they will need to take about 20 anti-rejection drugs several times a day to provide immunosuppression as well as treat complications caused by the toxicities of immunosuppression medications. The side effects of chronic immunosuppression include weight gain, high blood pressure, and high cholesterol. These cardiovascular comorbidities, Requadt says, are “often more frequently the cause of death than failure of a transplanted organ.”
Patients who are chronically immunosuppressed generally have much higher rates of infections and cancers that have an immune component to them, such as skin cancers.
For the past couple of years, those patients have experienced heightened anxiety because of the COVID-19 pandemic. Immune-suppressing medicine used to protect their new organ also makes it hard for patients to build immunity to foreign invaders like COVID-19.
A study appearing in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences found the probability of a pandemic with similar impact to COVID-19 is about 2 percent in any year, and estimated that the probability of novel disease outbreaks will grow three-fold in the next few decades. All the more reason to identify an FDA-approved alternative to harsh immunosuppressive drugs.
Of the 18 patients during the phase II research trial who received the Talaris therapy, didn’t take immunosuppression medication and were vaccinated, only two ended up with a COVID infection, according to a review of the data. Among patients who needed to continue taking immunosuppressants or those who didn’t have them but were unvaccinated, the rates of infection were between 40 and 60 percent.
In the earlier phase II study by Talaris with 37 patients, the combined transplantation approach allowed 70 percent of patients to get off all immunosuppression.
“We’ve followed that whole cohort for more than six and a half years and one of them for 12 years from transplant, and every single patient that we got off immunosuppression has been able to stay off,” Requadt says.
That one patient, Robert Waddell, 55, was especially thankful to be weaned off immunosuppressive drugs approximately one year after his transplant procedure. The Louisville resident had long watched his mother, sister and other family members with polycystic kidney disease, or PKD, suffer the effects of chronic immunosuppression. That became his greatest fear when he was diagnosed with end stage renal failure.
Waddell enrolled in the phase II research taking place in Louisville after learning about it in early 2006. He chose to remain in the study when it relocated its clinical headquarters to Northwestern University’s medical center in Chicago a couple years later.
Before surgery, he underwent an enervating regimen of chemotherapy and radiation. It’s required to clear out a patient’s bone marrow cells so that they can be replaced by the donor’s cells. Waddell says the result was worth it: he had his combined kidney and immune system stem cell transplant in May 2009, without any need for chronic immunosuppression.
“I call it ‘short-term pain, long-term gain,’ because it was difficult to go through the conditioning, but after that, it was great,” he says. “I’ve talked to so many kidney recipients who say, ‘I wish I would have done that,’ because most people don’t think about clinical trials, but I was very fortunate.”
Waddell has every reason to support the success of this research, especially given the genetic disorder, PKD, that has plagued his family. One of his four children has PKD. He is anxious for the procedure to become standard of care, if and when his son needs it.
The Talaris procedure was pioneered decades ago by Suzanne Ildstad, founding CEO of Talaris and the company's Chief Scientific Officer, pictured here with the current CEO, Scott Requadt.
“The beauty of this procedure is that I don’t have to take all of the anti-rejection drugs,” says Waddell, a finance professional. “I forget that I ever had any kidney issues. That’s how impactful it is.”
Talaris will continue to follow Waddell and the rest of his cohort to track the effectiveness and safety of the procedure. According to Requadt, the average life of a transplanted kidney is 12 to 15 years, partly because the immunosuppressive drugs worsen the functioning of the organ each year.
“We were the first group to show that we could robustly and fairly reproducibly do this in a clinical setting in humans,” Requadt says. “Most important, we’ve been able to show that we can still get a good engraftment of the stem cells from the donor, even if there is a profound…mismatch between the donor and the recipient’s immune systems.”
In kidney transplantation, it’s important to match for human leukocyte antigens (HLA) because there is a better graft survival in HLA-identical kidney transplants compared with HLA mismatched transplants.
About three months after the transplant, Talaris researchers look for evidence that the donated immune cells and stem cells have engrafted, while making a donor immune system for the patient. If more than 50 percent of the T cells contain the donor’s DNA after six months, patients can start taking fewer immunosuppressants.
“We know from phase II that in our patients who were able to tolerize [accept the organ without rejection] to their donated organ, we saw completely preserved and in fact slightly increased kidney function,” Requadt says. “So, it stands to reason that if you eliminate the drugs that are associated with declining kidney function that you would preserve kidney function, so hopefully the patient will have that one kidney for life.”
Matthew Cooper, director of kidney and pancreas transplantation for MedStar Georgetown Transplant Institute in Washington, DC, states that, “Right now, the Achilles’ heel is we have such a long waiting list and few donors that people die every day waiting for a kidney transplant. Eventually, we will eliminate the organ shortage so that people won’t die from organ failure.”
Cooper, a nationally recognized clinical transplant surgeon for 20 years, says when he started his career, finding a way for patients to forgo immunosuppression was considered “the Holy Grail” of modern transplant medicine.
“Now that we’ve got the protocols in place and some personal examples of how that can happen, it’s pretty exciting to see that all coming together,” he adds.