Monday, March 12, 2012

Tricking The Immune System For A Good Cause

Your immune system is an interesting thing, it's actually extremely smart. Despite not having an intelligence of its own, it is filled with antibodies that can identify and mark things not belonging to your body for destruction. Generally this is a good thing because it finds things that don't belong and gets rid of them, but what if you want something inside of your body that isn't normally there?

Organ donation is miraculous, the idea of replacing someone's failing organ with one that works fine from a different host sounds extremely futuristic, but it is very much a reality. The problem is that the replacement organs aren't exactly what would have been developed by the new body on its own, so it looks foreign to the new body. When antibodies find these new organs they often mark them for destruction and start attacking them, trying to dissolve them so that they don't "infect" the organ recipient. This means that an organ recipient is in danger of losing their new organ if it isn't carefully monitored and cared for. Many organ recipients have to take drugs to suppress their immune system so that it won't attack the new organ, but this has many nasty side effects. The immune system is pretty important, and with it in disarray an organ recipient can be open to many different types of diseases and infections. The side effects from the drugs can include high blood pressure, diabetes, infection, heart disease, and cancer. The drug regimen sometimes has to be continued for the rest of the patient's life, which is a huge hassle for the patient.

There is now a new method of doing an organ transplant that tricks the immune system into accepting the new organ without suppressing itself and doesn't rely on drugs. The method uses donor-derived stem cells in the new body that can serve as a sort of bridge between the donor's organ and the recipient's body. Since stem cells are capable of becoming almost anything they end up conforming to their environment and not getting attacked by the host body.

This new method of transplanting has greatly reduced the percentage of patients that need to take immune system repressing drugs, thus reducing the number of people who have to deal with the symptoms. This makes for a healthier older population and can help make the treatment for many things once though lethal far less obtrusive.

by Mike Selden (C)


  1. The scope and potential stem cells have never cease to amaze me. They truly are the building blocks of the human body and more research should be devoted to such studies. An organ transplant between two unrelated people, is for all intentes and purposes, the insertion of a foreign and potentially harmful entity into someone's body. As far as the body can tell, this new heart or lung might as well be a deadly virus. The fact that stem cells can trick a person's body into accepting the donor organ is not only a medical breakthrough, but a massive advance in its field.

    - Jeff Keating (2)

  2. I think many people don't realize this inherent danger of organ donation. Without at least a basic education in biology, most people don't know about antigens and other cell-surface recognition molecules, and the immune response they elicit when they are recognized as foreign invaders by the body. With these new stem cell treatments though, will we still have to be careful about ABO and Rh antigen blood types, or will the stem cells take care of those responses too?

    Posted by Laura Moro (2)

  3. Someone who is extremely close to me is currently getting her second double lung transplant, due to the fact that she has cystic fibrosis. She got her first double lung transplant ten years ago, but now her body is deciding to reject those lungs. Knowing first hand all the suffering she has gone through, I would consider the stem cells working with the immune system to not only be an incredible breakthrough, but a blessing as well. Transplant patients go through so much as it is, and to have their new organs be rejected is absolutely devastating. The piece of mind knowing that your new organ would be accepted into your body would be an indescribable weight lifted off your shoulders.

    Taylor Pirog

  4. There do seem to be some risks with this procedure. The patient's immune system would still have to be weakened to inject the donor stem cells in the first place.

    This is definitely a step in the right direction though. Particularly with reducing the amount of time the patient has to take the immune system weakening drugs.

    Posted by Joseph Frimpong

  5. I imagine that the immune system would need to be initially suppressed following the transplant, but for how long? Could this lengthen the life of a transplant organ?

  6. Doing an organ transplant is always a daunting thing. This is great news, but I thought doctors do a pretty thorough job of finding organ donors that are compatible before they even do a transplant. Do you mean even in those cases, there might still be a chance that the body might still reject the new organ?

    -Hermann Kam

  7. Our immune system constantly work overtime to make sure everything in our body is in homeostasis. It's also sad that sometimes it attacks vital organs that were donated by others, causing it to be rendered useless. I find that to be so depressing, but this new revelation into improved methods to stop this is an amazing advancement. Great Article.

    Posted By Andy Zou