Drugs that make transplants possible are a double-edged sword. "If immunosuppression gets too low the patient is vulnerable to infections and some kinds of cancers," explains Dr. Dixon Kaufman, Chief of the Division of Transplantation at the University of Wisconsin School of Medicine. "If it were possible to reduce or eliminate the need for anti-rejection medicine, the benefits would be great."

Immediate horizons

The good news is that day may come sooner than we think. Adds Kaufman, "The research has been going on for many years, and with improved knowledge and scientific advances, there have been some promising advancements that make it appear it may be possible to eliminate the medications after a short exposure to them.

“It could help many more people,” he continues, “particularly children who would be exposed to years of rejection medicine.” Eliminating the need for costly immunosuppressant drugs would also help patients financially.

Moving the ball

But while science is getting closer to making this new world of transplants a reality, there's still a ways to go. "The biggest obstacle has been the ingenuity of our human immune systems to circumvent methods to tame it," says Kaufman. Currently, new technologies aim to incorporate the immune system of the donor as well as the organ.

Pilot studies are taking place in Boston, Chicago and California, and Kaufman says institutional studies could be a year or two away. "When one looks at the number of trials developing in the next year, that moves the needle toward discovering something safe."