Doctors at Baltimore’s Johns Hopkins University performed what is thought to be the first kidney transplant from a living donor with HIV – a medical breakthrough that could save many lives on organ donation transplant waiting list, doctors say.
Nina Martinez, a marathon runner who grew up with HIV after receiving an infected blood transfusion, donated her kidney to an anonymous recipient on Monday. Both are recovering well, doctors say.
“This is not only a celebration of transplantation, but also HIV care,” Dr. Dorry Segev, a leading researcher on HIV organ donation and the surgeon who removed Martinez’s kidney, said Thursday.
“Thirty years ago, what was a disease that was basically a death sentence has been so transformed that today somebody with HIV can save somebody else’s life.”
Martinez said she had an HIV-positive friend who needed a kidney and she wanted to donate. Although her friend died before she was cleared for the operation, she still wanted to go through the process after reaching out to Segev.
“I knew I was the one they had been waiting for,” Martinez said.
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Before 2013, HIV-positive people legally could not donate organs, but Segev’s research helped pass the HIV Organ Policy Equity, or HOPE, Act, which reversed that ban and allowed HIV-to-HIV organ donations.
Other medical risks had also previously prevented a kidney transplant between people with HIV, Segev said.
Before the operation, he and his team studied 40,000 people living with HIV and found that new HIV medicines are now safer for their kidneys and that otherwise healthy patients with controlled HIV have the same risks in organ donations as anyone else.
For a person with HIV to donate an organ, they would need to be healthy, have well-controlled HIV and otherwise meet requirements for standard living organ donations, said Dr. Christine Durand, who also works on researching these organ transplants.
Once Martinez passed the necessary screening tests to ensure she could live with one kidney, the operation was the same as hundreds of others Segev has done.
“It was no different from any other live donation in somebody who doesn’t have HIV, and that’s what makes it magical – that now anybody can do this, anywhere in the world,” Segev said.
Today, a person with HIV who is being treated can live nearly as long as someone without HIV, the CDC says. While there is no cure available, treatment can suppress the virus to the point that it is effectively undetectable in a patient.
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Durand said doctors expect neither patient to have negative long-term outcomes associated with the surgery.
“It really changes the narrative about HIV. There are many people living with HIV who will see this as a breakthrough and victory, that they will have the opportunity to potentially donate to help a loved one, help a friend,” Durand added.
Durand said thousands of lives could be saved after this procedure because there are many on the organ donation waiting list with HIV, and by allowing healthy HIV-positive people to donate to them, it could free up spaces.
“For me, it was an opportunity to be the same as anybody else,” Martinez said. “To be able to leave this kind of medical legacy for me was quite important because I wanted to show that people living with HIV were just as healthy.”
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