Surgeons in Baltimore, USA, have successfully completed the world’s very first kidney transplant in which both the living donor and recipient are HIV-positive. The success of this operation could mean organs becoming more widely available to patients who are affected by HIV/AIDS.
Nina Martinez, a 35-year-old woman from Atlanta, Georgia, contracted HIV as a newborn and offered one of her kidneys to an HIV-positive stranger. The doctors at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine performed the procedure on Monday, March 25 2019.
Martinez contracted HIV through a blood transfusion when she was just 6 weeks old.
She had initially wanted to donate her kidney to a friend, but the friend passed away before she could do so. She decided to still go ahead with the donation and give her kidney to someone else in need. She said she wanted to help clear away some of the stigma surrounding those who live with HIV/AIDS.
“For me, it was an opportunity to be the same as anybody else,” Martinez said during a media briefing on Thursday. “I really wanted to do something to jolt people’s perceptions. Usually, when society thinks of people with HIV, they think of people who look like they have HIV, they think of people from the 1980s. Somebody was waiting for a kidney who needed that kidney, and even though my kidney has HIV, this kidney saved their lives.”
Dr Dorry Segev, a surgeon at Johns Hopkins, called the milestone “unbelievably exciting”.
“We saw there were people on the transplant list who had HIV who were dying, and at the same time we were unable to use organs from donors who had HIV,” Segev explained during the media briefing.
Doctors in the US were prevented by law from using organs harvested from HIV-positive donors – even if these were to be used to save the lives of HIV-positive patients.
The HIV Organ Policy Equity (HOPE) Act of 2013 lifted the 25-year-old ban, giving Johns Hopkins surgeons the legal authority to perform the transplant on Monday.
The procedure was also greenlit by the United Network for Organ Sharing (UNOS), the organisation that oversees the US transplant system.
According to UNOS statistic, approximately 113 000 people are on a waiting list to receive an organ. Nearly three of every five transplants involve a kidney.
Segev estimated that between 500 and 600 HIV-positive patients who want to be organ donors die each year. Their organs could have saved more than 1 000 people if the medical community used the organs for transplants.
Johns Hopkins noted that there already have been very positive outcomes when HIV-positive patients received HIV-negative organs. South Africa has also established a successful track record of HIV-positive-to-HIV-positive kidney transplants using organs from deceased donors.
“Organ transplantation is critical for patients with HIV, who die on the waiting list even faster than their HIV-negative counterparts,” Segev said. “We are very thankful to Congress, the president and the entire transplant community for letting us use organs from HIV-positive patients to save lives instead of throwing them away, as we had to do for so many years.”