Rob Waddell dreaded getting a kidney transplant. He suffers from a genetic condition called polycystic kidney disease that causes the uncontrolled growth of cysts that gradually choke off kidney function. The inherited defect has haunted his family for generations, killing his great grandmother, grandmother, and numerous cousins, aunts and uncles.
But he saw how difficult it was for his mother and sister, who also suffer from this condition, to live with the side effects of the drugs they needed to take to prevent organ rejection, which can cause diabetes, high blood pressure and cancer, and even kidney failure because of their toxicity. Many of his relatives followed the same course, says Waddell: "They were all on dialysis, then a transplant and ended up usually dying from cancers caused by the medications."
When the Louisville native and father of four hit 40, his kidneys barely functioned and the only alternative was either a transplant or the slow death of dialysis. But in 2009, when Waddell heard about an experimental procedure that could eliminate the need for taking antirejection drugs, he jumped at the chance to be their first patient. Devised by scientists at the University of Louisville and Northwestern University, the innovative approach entails mixing stem cells from the live kidney donor with that of the recipient to create a hybrid immune system, known as a chimera, that would trick the immune system and prevent it from attacking the implanted kidney.
The procedure itself was done at Northwestern Memorial Hospital in Chicago, using a live kidney donated by a neighbor of Waddell's, who camped out in Chicago during his recovery. Prior to surgery, Waddell underwent a conditioning treatment that consisted of low dose radiation and chemotherapy to weaken his own immune system and make room for the infusion of stem cells.
"The low intensity chemo and radiation conditioning regimen create just enough space for the donor stem cells to gain a foothold in the bone marrow and the donor's immune system takes over," says Dr. Joseph Levanthal, the transplant surgeon who performed the operation and director of kidney and pancreas transplantation at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine. "That way the recipient develops an immune system that doesn't see the donor organ as foreign."
"As a surgeon, I saw what my patients had to go through—taking 25 pills a day, dying at an early age from heart disease, or having a 35% chance of dying every year on dialysis."
A week later, Waddell had the kidney transplant. The following day, he was infused with a complex cellular cocktail that included blood-forming stem cells derived from his donor's bone marrow mixed what are called tolerance inducing facilitator cells (FCs); these cells help the foreign stem cells get established in the recipient's bone marrow.
Over the course of the following year, he was slowly weaned off of antirejection medications—a precaution in case the procedure didn't work—and remarkably, hasn't needed them since. "I felt better than I had in decades because my kidneys [had been] degrading," recalls Waddell, now 54 and a CPA for a global beverage company. And what's even better is that this new approach offers hope for one of his sons who has also inherited the disorder.
Kidney transplants are the most frequent organ transplants in the world and more than 23,000 of these procedures were done in the United States in 2019, according to the United Network for Organ Sharing. Of this, about 7,000 operations are done annually using live organ donors; the remainder use organs from people who are deceased. Right now, this revolutionary new approach—as well as a similar strategy formulated by Stanford University scientists--is in the final phase of clinical trials. Ultimately, this research may pave the way towards realizing the holy grail of organ transplantation: preventing organ rejection by creating a tolerant state in which the recipient's immune system is compatible with the donor, which would eliminate the need for a lifetime of medications.
"As a surgeon, I saw what my patients had to go through—taking 25 pills a day, dying at an early age from heart disease, or having a 35% chance of dying every year on dialysis," says Dr. Suzanne Ildstad, a transplant surgeon and director of the Institute for Cellular Therapeutics at the University of Louisville, whose discovery of facilitator cells were the basis for this therapeutic platform. Ildstad, who has spent more than two decades searching for a better way, says, "This is something I have worked for my entire life."
The Louisville group uses a combination of chemo and radiation to replace the recipient's immune and blood forming cells with that of the donor. In contrast, the Stanford protocol involves harvesting the donor's blood stem cells and T-cells, which are the foot soldiers of the immune system that fight off infections and would normally orchestrate the rejection of the transplanted organ. Their transplant recipients undergo a milder form of "conditioning" that only radiates discrete parts of the body and selectively targets the recipient's T-cells, creating room for both sets of T-cells, a strategy these researchers believe has a better safety profile and less of a chance of rejection.
"We try to achieve immune tolerance by a true chimerism," says Dr. Samuel Strober, a professor of medicine for immunology and rheumatology at Stanford University and a leader of this research team. "The recipients immune system cells are maintained but mixed in the blood with that of the donor."
Studies suggest both approaches work. In a 2018 clinical trial conducted by Talaris Therapeutics, a Louisville-based biotech founded by Ildstad, 26 of 37 (70%) of the live donor kidney transplant recipients no longer need immunosuppressants. Last fall, Talaris began the final phase of clinical tests that will eventually encompass more than 120 such patients.
The Stanford group's cell-based immunotherapy, which is called MDR-101 and is sponsored by the South San Francisco biotech, Medeor Therapeutics, has had similar results in patients who received organs from live donors who were either well matched, such as one from siblings, meaning they were immunologically identical, or partially matched; Talaris uses unrelated donors where there is only a partial match.
In their 2020 clinical trial of 51 patients, 29 were fully matched and 22 were a partial match; 22 of the fully matched recipients didn't need antirejection drugs and ten of the partial matches were able to stop taking some of these medications without rejection. "With our fully matched, roughly 80% have been completely off drugs up to 14 years later," says Strober, "and reducing the number of drugs from three to one [in the partial matches] means you have far fewer side effects. The goal is to get them off of all drugs."
But these protocols are limited to a small number of patients—living donor kidney recipients. As a consequence, both teams are experimenting with ways to broaden their approach so they can use cadaver organs from deceased donors, with human tests planned in the coming year. Here's how that would work: after the other organs are removed from a deceased donor, stem cells are harvested from the donor's vertebrae in the spinal column and then frozen for storage.
"We do the transplant and give the patient a chance to recover and maintain them on drugs," says Ildstad. "Then we do the tolerance conditioning at a later stage."
If this strategy is successful, it would be a genuine game changer, and open the door to using these protocols for transplanting other cadaver organs, including the heart, lungs and liver. While the overall procedure is complex and costly, in the long run it's less expensive than repeated transplant surgeries, the cost of medications and hospitalizations for complications caused by the drugs, or thrice weekly dialysis treatments, says Ildstad.
And she adds, you can't put a price tag on the vast improvement in quality of life.