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Chris Larsen

Catching up on Emory transplant advances

While preparing to discuss Ebola virology with Emory infectious disease specialist Aneesh Mehta next week, we noticed two recent research papers on which he is a co-author. Both have to do with organ transplantation, since Mehta is Assistant Director of Transplant Infectious Diseases.

Fecal microbiota transplantation for refractory Clostridium difficile colitis in solid organ transplant recipients

Fecal transplant is gaining ground as a remedy for C. difficile-driven diarrheal infections, which can appear in patients whose normal intestinal bacteria are wiped out by antibiotics. Fecal transplant has not been widely studied in organ transplant recipients, who must take drugs to keep their immune systems from rejecting the transplanted organ, because of concerns about infectious disease complications. This paper describes two patients, one a lung transplant recipient and one a kidney transplant recipient, who received fecal transplants to resolve their C. difficile diarrhea without complications. The lead authors are infectious disease specialists Rachel Friedman-Moraco and Colleen Kraft. Kraft has been a pioneer in this area of research.

Renal transplantation using belatacept without maintenance steroids or calcineurin inhibitors

Medical school dean Chris Larsen and Emory Transplant Center executive director Tom Pearson (both co-authors) were key members on the team that developed belatacept, a FDA-approved drug since 2011. Belatacept was designed to get away from the cruel paradox where a kidney recipient, to prevent transplant rejection, has to take calcineurin inhibitor drugs that slowly poison the kidney and cardiovascular health. Belatacept inhibits the immune response by a different mechanism. Yet transplant specialists have generally been cautious in moving toward a regimen that relies on it.

As reported in this paper, Emory transplant doctors took off the training wheels, aiming to get to the point where kidney transplant recipients are taking a once-a-month infusion of belatacept only. With some patients, it was possible to reach that goal, but not all. In fact, as the authors describe, some patients chose not to try to wean themselves off the other drugs, and doctors advised against the attempt for a handful. This clinical trial was also notable because some transplant recipients received immune-educational cells from their organ donors in the form of bone marrow.

The lead author, former Emory Transplant Center scientific director Allan Kirk, moved to Duke this spring.

Posted on by Quinn Eastman in Immunology Leave a comment

Emory transplant roundup

A recent Associated Press story highlighted clinical trials aimed at helping kidney transplant recipients give up their anti-rejection drugs:

The experimental approach: Transplant the seeds of a new immune system along with a new kidney. It’s the 21st-century version of a bone marrow transplant, and possible for now only if the transplanted kidney comes from a living donor.

How does it work? Doctors cull immune system-producing stem cells and other immunity cells from the donor’s bloodstream. They blast transplant patients with radiation and medications to wipe out part of their own bone marrow, far more grueling than a regular kidney transplant. That makes room for the donated cells to squeeze in and take root, creating a sort of hybrid immunity that scientists call chimerism, borrowing a page from mythology.

Emory Transplant Center scientific director Allan Kirk is leading a study that takes a similar approach, involving a depletion of the recipient’s immune cells and an infusion of bone marrow, which introduces new immune cells from the donor.

Allan Kirk, MD, PhD

Nature Medicine also has a good explanation of this area of research. Kirk is quoted in this recent story:

“The impetus to take the risk and pull people off immunosuppressants completely is lower now,” says Kirk… “It’s all about risk-benefit ratios and about making smart decisions with the tools we have—and we have a lot more tools now.”

Why go through so much trouble to avoid anti-rejection drugs? The most common drugs taken by transplant recipients, called calcineurin inhibitors, can reduce an individual’s ability to fight infections, lead to high blood pressure and high blood sugar and, ironically, tend to damage the kidney over time. Emory scientists played a major role in developing an alternative, belatacept, which was approved last year by the FDA.

Emory transplant surgeon Ken Newell was also mentioned in the AP story for his study of rare individuals who were able to go “cold turkey” and avoid having their immune systems reject their donated kidneys. One of these individuals, Lisa Robinson, had an interesting story to tell about how came to that point:

Three years after her kidney transplant, she found it hard to tolerate the side effects of the immunosuppressive drugs, which included swelling, weight gain and depression. On top of that, her creatinine levels were rising, indicating that her donated kidney was losing function. Without explicit approval from her doctor, she decided to taper off her drugs, first cyclosporine and then steroids.

“This turned out to be the right choice for me, but I’m not suggesting that others do what I did,” she says. “Everyone has to figure out what works for them. My main motivation was that I didn’t want to go through another kidney transplant.”

Based on data from Robinson and other people who had similar experiences, Newell has been able to identify a pattern of genes turned on in their immune cells that may predict whether someone could be able to become “tolerant.” Much of transplant biology focuses on one type of immune cell (T cells), but Newell found that the cells that may make the biggest difference for long-term tolerance are different, B cells. This makes sense because of B cells’ role in chronic rejection, Emory’s Stuart Knechtle has written.

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Challenges in islet transplantation

Two recent research papers from the Emory Transplant Center describe research on pancreatic islet transplantation, an experimental procedure that could help people with type I diabetes live without daily insulin injections.

Islet transplantation may offer people with type I diabetes the ability to produce their own insulin again

As with other types of transplantation, the challenge with islet transplantation is to avoid rejection of the donated organ and to balance that goal against side effects from the drugs needed to control the immune system. These papers illustrate how that balancing act is especially complex.

In the last decade, transplant specialists developed a method for islet transplantation named the “Edmonton protocol” after pioneers at the University of Alberta. While the emergence of this method was a major step forward, there are limitations:

Read more

Posted on by Quinn Eastman in Uncategorized 3 Comments

Many roads to memory T cells

When our bodies encounter a bacteria or a virus, the immune system sends some cells out to fight the invader and keeps others in reserve, in order to respond faster and stronger the next time around. Vaccination depends on this phenomenon, called immunological memory.

Several recent papers — from Emory and elsewhere – provide insight into this process, and highlight this area of research as especially active lately.

Researchers led by Rafi Ahmed and Chris Larsen at Emory found that rapamycin, a drug usually given to transplant patients to block rejection, actually stimulates the formation of memory T cells. Rapamycin appears to nudge immune cells when they have to make a decision whether to hunker down to become a memory cell.

The immunosuppressant drug rapamycin was discovered in soil from Easter Island

The immunosuppressant drug rapamycin was discovered in soil from Easter Island

Similarly, the anti-diabetes drug metformin, which affects fatty acid metabolism, can also stimulate the formation of memory T cells, according to research that was published in the same issue of Nature.

In addition, Wnt signaling, which plays critical roles in embryonic development and cancer, influences memory T cell formation as well, according to a July paper in Nature Medicine.

To summarize — pushing on several different “buttons” produces the same thing: more memory T cells. How are the wires behind the buttons connected? Work by Ahmed and others may eventually help enhance vaccine efficacy or fight cancer with the immune system.

Rapamycin, the focus of the Ahmed/Larsen paper, was also recently found to slow aging in mice. However, with previous anti-aging research findings, translating results into the human realm has been a considerable challenge.

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