Thursday, January 24, 2008

Pardon My Accidental Blood Type

This was a featured story in Yahoo! News this morning, and I was so intrigued I just wanted to share it.

A nine-year-old girl dying of liver failure received a liver transplant, and, after some minor complications, including a post-transplant infection, seemed to recover fully. It turns out that she recovered more fully than any of her doctors had anticipated. Seems some of her donor's stem cells found their way into her bone marrow and began replicating. Now the girl has switched blood groups and adopted her donor's immune system. This has reduced the odds of her body rejecting the new liver considerably. The now-healthy 15-year-old is seen by her doctors only occasionally on an outpatient basis. This, for a girl who spent the better part of her childhood in hospitals.

The reason this is so fascinating to me is that it is the best possible transplant outcome that anybody, doctor or patient, could hope for. Back in the days when organ transplantation was a pie-in-the-sky, theoretical pipe dream, this is what doctors imagined, before they ever considered the hazards of angry immune systems that would treat the new organ as an invading enemy. Transplant pioneers dreamt of a host body that not only fully accepts the new organ, but adapts to it and allows itself to become one with it to the point where the organ and body become something entirely new and apart from both the original donor or the recipient.

This could be the precipice of something really amazing and spectacular in science of organ transplantation. If researchers can find a way to replicate this girl's post-transplant scenario in a more controlled manner (like, minus the post-surgical infection, for instance), it could open a whole new door to people -- especially kid-type people -- who must endure the ordeal of organ transplantation to live. Instead of being forever trapped on powerful immunosuppressant drugs (some of which have some nasty side effects*), cultivating this post-surgical scenario could lead to patients having near-normal lives, free of the ill effects of their original disease and the complications following transplant surgery. People, this could be HUGE!

And it happened completely by accident.

Because, for all of our self-congratulatory brilliance and creativity, for all of our cleverness and ingenuity, every now and then, nature comes along and likes to teach us a thing or two about all the things we have left to learn, and everything we don't know yet, and that maybe we're not as smart as we think we are. Because this is the Planet Earth, and right now, it's just a weird and wonderful time to be alive.


* lists the following as potential side effects of immunosuppressant drugs:

"Increased risk of infection is a common side effect of all immunosuppressant drugs. The immune system protects the body from infections; when the immune system is suppressed, infections are more likely. Taking such antibiotics as co-trimoxazole prevents some of these infections. Immunosuppressant drugs are also associated with a slightly increased risk of cancer because the immune system plays a role in protecting the body against some forms of cancer. For example, the long-term use of immunosuppressant drugs carries an increased risk of developing skin cancer as a result of the combination of the drugs and exposure to sunlight.

Other side effects of immunosuppressant drugs are minor and usually go away as the body adjusts to the medicine. These include loss of appetite, nausea or vomiting, increased hair growth, and trembling or shaking of the hands. Medical attention is not necessary unless these side effects continue or cause problems."

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