November 8, 1999
Volume 52, No. 11
Emory transplant program to lead national network
The National Institutes of Health (NIH) has selected Emory's kidney transplantation program as part of a new nationwide network that will conduct clinical trials using new research strategies to improve organ transplantation. Transplant surgeon Christian Larsen will lead the nine kidney transplant research centers within the new Collaborative Network for Clinical Research on Immune Tolerance.
The clinical researchers hope to find ways to induce immune tolerance and selectively modulate the immune system by inhibiting harmful immune responses while keeping protective ones intact. The new therapy promises to improve the success of transplants as well as treatments for autoimmune diseases such as Type I diabetes, lupus and arthritis.
More than 70 researchers and clinical specialists from 39 institutions in nine countries will work together in the new network. The seven-year initiative is funded by the NIH's National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID), which contributed nearly $130 million to the effort; by the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases; and by the Juvenile Diabetes Foundation International, which contributed $14 million.
"This collaboration brings together some of the brightest minds in immunology and flows from NIAID's plan to accelerate clinical trials for novel approaches to modulate immune responses," said NIAID director Anthony Fauci.
"This is an extremely exciting opportunity for Emory and one that promises to fundamentally change the way we treat transplant patients," said Larsen, an associate professor of surgery. Larsen and Thomas Pearson, also an associate professor of surgery, are co-leaders of Emory's program in kidney transplantation.
Larsen and Pearson and their Emory colleagues have gained international prominence for their groundbreaking research leading to new strategies to stop rejection of transplanted organs. In 1998 the NIH awarded Emory's Center for Transplantation a five-year, $7.5 million grant to help establish true immune tolerance in patients receiving organ transplants.
Organ transplant patients are required to take lifelong daily regimens of immunosuppressant medicines. Unfortunately these same medicines make them highly susceptible to viral and bacterial infections as well as cancer, kidney failure, diabetes and osteoporosis. The medicines also are not effective past an average of eight years, and about 30 percent of patients experience episodes of organ rejection, requiring hospitalization and extra doses of immunosuppresants.
"When we turn off immune responses to the transplant," Larsen explained, "we run into a potential problem of turning off the immune response to viruses or infectious agents. We need to be able to induce tolerance to the transplant while preserving protective immunity in the long term to viruses."
Several years ago the Emory investigators developed the ability to simultaneously block two molecular pathways, CD40 and CD28, required by the immune system's T-cells to reject invading microorganisms as well as transplanted tissues. Preventing the T-cells from getting these necessary "second-signals" is called a "costimulation blockade" and is one of the most exciting strategies to be tested by the Immune Tolerance Network. Researchers from the U.S. Naval Medical Research Institute have used the double-blocking therapy successfully in kidney transplants in rhesus monkeys.
If the new clinical research network is able to demonstrate the safety and effectiveness of new strategies for immune tolerance, it not only would free transplant recipients from the toxic side effects of daily immunosuppressant medicines, it also could lead to the "golden ring" of transplantation medicine--permanent, long-term acceptance of donor organs.