New treatment keeps liver transplant patients healthy without immunosuppressants: Japanese researchers

Staff Report, Kyodo

Seven out of 10 people who were administered specially treated lymphocytes shortly after undergoing living-donor liver transplants at Hokkaido University Hospital have remained in good health without having to rely on immunosuppressive drugs, researchers said Thursday.

Currently, patients who undergo organ transplants have to take immunosuppressants for the rest of their life. Such drugs can bring a variety of side effects, including increased risks of infections, cancers and organ failures.

In a pilot study covering 10 people in their 30s through their 60s, researchers at Hokkaido University and Juntendo University drew what’s called “regulatory T cells,” which control autoimmunity and influence the response of the immune system, from patients’ blood, cultured them and injected them back into their bodies.

These enriched regulatory T cells worked to maintain the necessary immunological functions for seven of the 10 patients. Of the seven, four have survived without immunosuppressive drugs for more than three years, and the remaining three have survived for more than two years, the researchers told a news conference in Sapporo.

The other three have had to be given immunosuppressants because reducing their doses worsened their conditions, but the total amount of drugs used has been smaller than normal, they added.

The results of the pilot study were published in the online edition of the journal Hepatology on Jan. 16.

“This is great news for organ transplant recipients,” said Hiroshi Shimono, director of Osaka-based nonprofit group Japan Transplant Recipients Organization. “This could greatly improve the quality of life for the patients, who often must use several immunosuppressive drugs. The financial burden for those drugs is huge, too. We want to see more patients try the new therapy, so it would be established as a solid method and eventually expanded to transplantation of organs other than livers.”

In Japan, around 400 liver transplants from living donors take place annually for end-stage liver failure patients, according to the research team.

The team is also considering collaborating with overseas researchers on the method’s use on liver transplants from brain-dead donors.