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MARY LOUISE KELLY, host:

OK. Now for some health news.

Researchers are reporting progress in kidney transplants. They've found a way to provide new kidneys to patients whose bodies had been expected to reject a donated kidney.

NPR's Richard Knox has the story.

RICHARD KNOX: Out of the 82,000 Americans waiting for a kidney transplant, one in three won't ever find a donor kidney their bodies will accept. Their immune system is primed to attack foreign tissue. It can happen for several reasons. For instance, if they've had blood transfusions or a previous transplant that failed. These patients are called pre-sensitized.

Doctors at Johns Hopkins are de-sensitizing them. Basically, they're cleansing antibodies from the patient's blood before a transplant. Eight years after the transplant, 81 percent of the de-sensitized patients are still alive.

Dr. Robert Montgomery says this is twice as many as those who stayed on dialysis or got treated after transplant with conventional anti-rejection drugs.

Dr. ROBERT MONTGOMERY (Johns Hopkins University): There are very few medications or therapies in medicine that can double your survival rate after eight years.

KNOX: The study's in this week's New England Journal of Medicine. It includes patients like Lourdes Aguilar. Dr. Montgomery said she had two transplants that failed.

Dr. MONTGOMERY: Very desperate situation. She was kind of at the end of the line. I think most people had given up on her and they had even talked to her about just stopping dialysis and, you know, allowing her to pass.

KNOX: Lourdes Aguilar says many doctors told her she'd never find a good enough match.

Ms. LOURDES AGUILAR: I was really, really, really hard to match. Because at that time I was almost 100 percent highly sensitized. I was sensitized against the world. Believe me.

KNOX: But now, almost 10 months after her transplant, there's no sign of rejection and her life is back to normal.

Ms. AGUILAR: I don't think there's anything that I cannot do. I can do everything. I can do everything.

Dr. MONTGOMERY: She looks great. Her hair has started to grow in. Her life is coming back together again. She's able to work, I mean, it's a great example of the miracle of transplantation.

KNOX: The Hopkins method is only for patients waiting for a kidney from a live donor. Doctors can't preserve kidneys donated after death long enough to do the blood-cleansing procedure. Montgomery says around 3,000 transplant patients have live donors lined up. Now they can be de-sensitized and have the surgery. Meanwhile, other researchers have devised de-sensitizing methods for patients who need a cadaver kidney.

Dr. Stanley Jordan, of Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles, says these results are also much better than conventional treatment.

Dr. STANLEY JORDAN (Cedars-Sinai Medical Center, Los Angeles): People ask me, you know, if this is such a great thing, why isn't everybody doing it? And I think one of the main reasons is that people may feel that these patients are too difficult to deal with and that we should just let them stay on dialysis.

KNOX: Another reason, he says, is even desensitized patients have a higher risk of rejection than those who have a good match in the first place. And insurers track how many transplants fail. So, many hospitals worry they'll lose their insurance contracts if they take a chance.

Richard Knox, NPR News.

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