RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:
Doctors in Maryland announced yesterday that they had performed two landmark surgeries. They transplanted HIV-positive organs to HIV-positive patients. As NPR's Rae Ellen Bichell reports, the ability to do those kinds of procedures could reduce the waiting list for all potential organ recipients.
RAE ELLEN BICHELL, BYLINE: When a Connecticut woman with HIV died earlier this year, her family decided to donate her organs for others who needed them. Now her kidney and liver have been transferred to two patients. This a big deal because patients living with HIV have an increased risk of kidney and liver failure. Dr. Dorry Segev is a transplant surgeon with Johns Hopkins who led the team that performed the surgery. He says a few years ago, he realized thousands of patients with HIV needed transplants.
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DOORY SEGEV: And at the same time, we were throwing away perfectly good organs for these patients.
BICHELL: Back in 1988, a law had made it illegal for people with HIV to donate organs when they died.
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SEGEV: At that time in the 1980s, this made sense because HIV/AIDS was a deadly disease.
BICHELL: And because medical accidents had happened.
PETER STOCK: The virus had been transmitted inadvertently in quite a number of patients with solid organ transplant.
BICHELL: That's Dr. Peter Stock, a transplant surgeon at the University of California San Francisco. He says there was another reason. In order for a patient not to reject a new organ, they need drugs that will suppress their immune system, but HIV is a disease of the immune system. So surgeons worried that organ transplants might do more harm than good.
STOCK: It didn't make sense. We were afraid we would cause rapid progression of HIV to AIDS and death.
BICHELL: But by the '90s, better treatment allowed people with HIV to live a lot longer than they used to, which meant there were a lot more of them who needed organ transplants. In a big study, Stock and other scientists found that transplant recipients with HIV did just about as well as patients without the disease. By the end of 2013, President Obama had reversed the ban from the '80s with bipartisan support. Segev, who conducted the surgeries earlier this month, says the time was right to start the transplants.
SEGEV: It all came together. So this was a six-year challenge that involved identifying the problem that affected our patients, doing the research to better understand that problem, taking that to the Hill, getting the bill passed.
BICHELL: And now, he says, he and his colleagues are working on making sure that the patients who get these organs stay healthy. Transplant surgeon Peter Stock says these surgeries could help everyone because if people with HIV can donate organs to each other, then that frees up organs for other patients.
STOCK: Our waiting lists are off the charts, so anything we can do to increase the organ supply is so important.
BICHELL: If all works as planned, this new source of organs might be enough for a thousand transplants each year. Rae Ellen Bichell, NPR News.
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