Health & wellness

Breaking a taboo, transplant patients to get infected kidneys

 Kidneys from donors with hepatitis C will soon be transplanted into recipients without the infection.
BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/AFP/GETTY IMAGES
Kidneys from donors with hepatitis C will soon be transplanted into recipients without the infection.

Transplant surgeons at two US hospitals are about to do something long considered taboo: put kidneys from donors with hepatitis C into recipients without the infection.

In first-in-the-world clinical trials scheduled to launch later this spring, independent teams from the University of Pennsylvania and Johns Hopkins University will take kidneys from deceased carriers of the hep C virus, put them into patients with renal failure, and then give them a 12-week course of an antiviral therapy in the hopes that they will emerge infection-free.

If successful, the trials could enable hundreds of transplants each year for patients who might otherwise die waiting for a kidney.

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“This trial is like a crystalizing moment,” said Dr. Peter Reese, a transplant nephrologist from Penn, describing the plans publicly for the first time. “Telling someone that you want to give them hepatitis C now seems like a reasonable thing to do if it can facilitate a transplant.”

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Currently, more than 100,000 Americans are on the wait list for a kidney, with an average wait time of three to five years. An estimated 5 percent of patients die each year before they receive a kidney, with even higher mortality rates for diabetics and the elderly.

The idea behind the two upcoming trials is to take older patients who have long waits ahead and don’t have living donors, and allow them to jump the queue.

The risk of hep C infection is deemed manageable, and ethically acceptable, thanks to the latest wave of hep C medications, which offer cure rates of 95 percent and higher.

“For a 60-year-old diabetic who doesn’t have a living donor, who hasn’t been on the wait list very long, they’re miserable on dialysis, their mortality rate is high — that person might roll the dice on this and say, ‘You know what? These drugs work, and it’s worth it to me to get off dialysis sooner,’” said Dr. Heather Morris, a nephrologist at the Columbia University Medical Center.

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“Initially, we’re targeting the population that has the highest mortality risk while waiting for a transplant,” explained Dr. Christine Durand, a transplant infectious disease specialist at Johns Hopkins. But if the technique proves safe and effective, she added, organs from hep C patients might one day join the regular organ pool.

“If it was me who needed a kidney,” Durand said, “I would sign up for this.”

Others are not as gung-ho, however.

Mark Schnitzler, a health economist and director of transplant outcomes and policy research at Saint Louis University, described himself as “quite skeptical.”

“Either the treatment success expectations would need to be excellent with minimal complications, or there would need to be unusual circumstances that limit access to alternative deceased donor kidneys,” he said.

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Both the Penn and Hopkins studies are backed by drug company Merck, which makes Zepatier, the latest hep C agent to hit the market. The company is supplying the therapy for free and providing additional financial support for staff and lab tests.

Despite the high cure rates, the new hep C drugs aren’t foolproof, and invariably some small fraction of transplant patients will develop hepatitis because of this procedure.

But just because someone catches hepatitis doesn’t mean they will necessarily develop cirrhosis and other complications associated with the disease. Some may live out their days carrying the virus but suffering few ill effects.

Reese and other proponents of the new approach say the major obstacle now is funding — and cost concerns abound, given that a course of the latest hepatitis drugs runs anywhere from $54,500 for Zepatier to $94,500 for Harvoni. That’s on top of the hundreds of thousands in medical costs associated with the transplant itself and the needed immune-suppressing agents.

But with one year of dialysis costing about $70,000 on average, most experts anticipate that the transplant and drug therapy will be the cheaper option in the long run, although a formal cost-analysis has not been conducted.

Dr. Brian Pereira, whose research 25 years ago first showed that hep C can be transmitted via organ transplantation, leading organ banks to impose bans, said he is buoyed by the opportunity to make use of these kidneys again.

With “so many people on the list, we need to do everything possible to bring more donors into the pool,” said Pereira, now president and CEO of Visterra, a drug company in Cambridge. “And if it can be done safely, it’s terrific.”

Elie Dolgin can be reached at elie.dolgin@statnews.com. Follow him on Twitter @eliedolgin. Follow Stat on Twitter @statnews.