Strings of cells might help future organ transplants

Check out this story from Discover Magazine about  how Japanese scientists are testing injectable string of cells that could someday prevent the immune systems of transplant recipients from attacking the donated organs:

The fibers create a life-like microenvironment in which the cells can function and interact with each other just like normal cells would, while the hydrogel protects them from the body’s immune response.

The research team published a paper about the work earlier this month.

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Hundreds willing to help NH cop with kidney disease

Tilton, NH police Cpl. Nate Morrison needs a kidney transplant. His colleagues have launched a website to help him find one. Courtesy photo.

Cpl. Nate Morrison. Courtesy photo.

A New Hampshire police officer in search of a kidney donor made news all over New England last week, including this story in the Concord Monitor.

Cpl. Nate Morrison found out last summer that a chronic illness is destroying his kidneys and a transplant is the only way to avoid dialysis. Morrison’s brother in law is a potential match, but his coworkers at the police department want him to have lots of other options. Earlier this month, they launched a website  to recruit potential donors and raise money to pay for expenses related to the disease.

The Monitor reports that 300 people used the site to sign up as donors in a single week. At least two of those potential donors are Tilton police officers, according to WCVB.com.

“We’re going to do everything we can to find a donor for him,” Tilton Police Chief Robert Cormier told WCVB. “He’s a member of the department, a member of our family.”

It’s not uncommon for patients with kidney disease to recruit donors this way. The first kidney transplant involving a living donors — versus an organ from a dead body — took place in Boston in 1954. Since then, more than 50,000 people have given one of their kidneys to friends, relatives and strangers, according to the National Kidney Registry. There’s even a Facebook group devoted to helping find a suitable match for patients — like this man from North Reading, MA who found a donor 10 minutes after posting his story.

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A kidney with its own Twitter account

Australian radio journalist Mark Colvin is a master at Twitter, so it was no surprise when he used a tweet to announce Friday that he was about to undergo a kidney transplant. Within hours, “kidney” was a trending topic in Australia. Then things got really interesting when Colvin’s new organ launched an account of its own:

Colvin, who tweets as @Colvinius, is recovering from what his doctors have deemed a successful transplant. He has no idea who’s behind @ColvinsKidney, but thinks the account is a good way to raise awareness about organ donation.

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Blogging a transplant

Stem cells, ready for transplant. Photo/ Amy Augustine Grappone

Stem cells, ready for transplant. Photo/ Amy Augustine Grappone

The bag in this photo is full of stem cells that, until a couple of weeks ago,were inside my friend Amanda’s body. That was before she donated them to her brother, Greg, who needed a bone marrow transplant to fight a tricky form of lymphoma.

I could tell you their story: How this isn’t Greg’s first experience with cancer, how he found out he’d need the transplant the day after his daughter was born, how his family is supporting cancer research and encouraging people to join the bone marrow registry. But really, it’s best if you just visit their blog, Counting up from Zero, because it’s impossible for me to describe all this better than they already are.

Greg’s wife, Amy, is a really fantastic woman, a journalist I worked with for many years at the Concord Monitor. (Friend’s brother married to former coworker? Yes, New Hampshire really is that small.) During Greg’s illness, she’s used Facebook, Instagram and now this blog to document their experiences in words and pictures, including the photo accompanying this post. The result is honest, unwavering and packed with the kind of information other transplant recipients will find useful.

Their blog has received thousands of hits since its launch earlier this month, and that’s no surprise. About 15,000 bone marrow and cord blood transfusions are performed in the U.S. each year. After the transplant, patients like Greg spend many months in near isolation while the donated cells rebuild the recipient’s immune system. It’s a mentally and physically tough time, and this blog will undoubtedly become a source of camaraderie for anyone in a similar situation.

Even those without a connection to Greg, Amy or anyone affected by this kind of transplant will find the blog a worthwhile read. It’s a testament to the power of family, community and science.

(Although Greg’s new cells came from his sister, many potential recipients don’t have family members who are able to donate compatible cells. In such cases, doctors try to find a match on a national registry of willing donors. Here’s Amanda’s description of what it was like to be a donor. And here’s some information to read if you’re considering joining the registry.)

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About that cooler…

Look up in the left corner of this blog and you’ll see an image that’s nearly iconic in the world of organ donation: A crisp white cooler stamped with the words “human organ for transplant.”

The need for clear labeling is obvious, but why the cooler itself?  Because, at least for now, organs must stay cold to keep them from spoiling as they travel between donor and recipient. In the case of heart transplants, the chilling process begins while the heart is still beating in the donor’s chest. HowStuffWorks.com explains it like this:

The first step for all the harvesting teams is to cut open the donor’s chest. Next, a surgeon saws through the breast bone and pulls the ribs outward to reveal the heart. While other teams are working on other parts of the body, the heart team clamps the different blood vessels leading into the heart and pumps in a cold, protective chemical solution. This solution stops the heart from beating and helps preserve it during transportation.

The surgeons then sever the vessels and remove the heart from the body, placing it in a bag filled with a preservative chemical. This bag is then packed in an ordinary cooler filled with ice, which is rushed to the recipient’s hospital, often via plane or helicopter.

Organ preservation techniques are improving rapidly — including one technique that could render the cooler obsolete. British scientists recently transplanted a liver after storing it  not on ice but in a machine that mimics conditions in the human abdomen.

After being removed from the donor, the liver is placed in the machine and tubes are connected to the main blood vessels. Oxygenated blood and nutrients are pumped through the liver which continues to function and produce bile.

Prof Peter Friend said: “It provides an environment where the donor liver hardly knows it has left the body. Instead of cooling it to slow its metabolism we keep it functioning at normal temperature and with oxygen and nutrition.”

Developing the technology took 15 years, but the surgeon quoted in this video is optimistic that similar machines could be used to preserve organs of all kinds.