For patients with end stage organ failure, finding a donor for an organ transplant can be the difference between life and death. However, we face persistent shortages in available organs for patients who need them. On top of this, even when an organ is available, it may not be a match for a potential recipient. A patient’s immune system is always hunting for foreign material, such as bacteria, that might cause illness by responding to markers called antigens to recognize items as “self” or “foreign” – blood type is one example of this. As a result, a donor organ can also be rejected as foreign. Even with excellent matches, patients with organ transplants have to be medicated for life to suppress the immune reaction to the organ, which also leaves them vulnerable to infections and other complications.
Dr. Lori West, pediatric cardiologist at the University of Alberta and the Director of the Canadian National Transplant Research Program (CNTRP), is looking for ways to teach the immune system to stay active without rejecting an organ transplant. Her work with the CNTRP brings together an interdisciplinary team of 120 researchers from across Canada to tackle issues related to organ transplantation.
West is both a researcher and a clinician, working directly with children who need organ transplants. Even before birth, we can now diagnose children with heart malformations that will require heart transplants. Although we initially thought that transplanting organs in newborn children would be a higher risk procedure than in adults, the opposite has turned out to be true. West explains, “In a very young immune system, instead of mounting an active auto-immune response to antigens that it encounters, it’s susceptible to what we call tolerance and it turns off that immune response rather than turning on. This is precisely what we need.” In fact, even organs that are mismatched for blood type can be safe when transplanted soon after birth – the early exposure to the blood antigens allows the body to tolerate the transplant. If we can trigger the same response in adult patients, then this may help solve many of our current limitations.