More hospitals have begun offering so-called desensitisation therapy to help high-risk patients who have a willing but non-matching living donor receive an organ their bodies otherwise would reject. Some specialty centres have reported success but it wasn't clear how well the approach would work when used widely.
Finding a match
Now an analysis from nearly two dozen transplant centres found that patients who took that chance had better long-term survival than those who stayed on the waiting list, whether or not they eventually found a match from a deceased donor.
"Desensitization is still not for every transplant centre" said senior author Dr Dorry Segev of Johns Hopkins University, which helped pioneer incompatible kidney transplants. But the findings show "you don't need a compatible living donor to make a transplant happen today – you just need a living donor."
Read: Kidney transplant beats dialysis
The study is published in the New England Journal of Medicine.
More than 100,000 people are on the national waiting list for a kidney but just 17,878 transplants were performed last year, according to the United Network for Organ Sharing. More than 12,000 were kidneys from someone who just died; the rest come from living donors, considered the optimal kind.
Finding a match goes beyond blood and tissue type. Some patients are "sensitised", their bodies abnormally primed with antibodies that can immediately attack many donated kidneys. Pregnancy, blood transfusions, a previous transplant and longer time spent on dialysis all can trigger production of those antibodies.
Those patients sometimes achieve transplants through kidney exchanges that widen the organ pool by mixing up pairs of would-be donors and their recipients for better matches.
Read: How long can I live with a kidney transplant?
The other option is desensitisation: Patients take potent immune-targeting medications and have their blood filtered to remove specific antibodies that would target their living donor's kidney.
Technique may save lives
If they had to wait for a deceased donor, the antibodies could form again. Infection is a risk, and desensitisation adds thousands of dollars to a transplant's cost.
Segev's team analysed records of 1,025 patients around the country who received incompatible living-donor transplants. They were compared to groups of similarly ill patients who remained on the waiting list in hopes of a match from a deceased donor.
After eight years, 76 percent of the desensitised patients who got incompatible transplants were still alive, he reported. That compares with 63 percent survival in a group where just under half of those waiting eventually got a deceased-donor transplant – and 44 percent survival among those still waiting without a transplant.
The study shows the technique "may save lives and may be cost-effective over time", Dr Lionel Rostaing, a kidney specialist at France's Toulouse University, wrote in an accompanying editorial.
Kidney failure - acute
Kidney problems and diet