Louisville researchers making impact on the future of organ dona - WDRB 41 Louisville News

Louisville researchers making impact on the future of organ donations

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LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) -- Kentucky’s first female double-hand transplant is healing well, according to her doctors.

Louella Aker underwent a 17-hour surgery in September and is now learning how to use her new hands.

"Her therapists are working on activities of daily living,” said Dr. Christina Kaufman, the executive director of the Christine M. Kleinert Institute. “Using the hand to feed herself and comb her hair. She just had her first manicure! She's really happy about that, and she's working really hard."

Aker’s progress is being closely monitored by surgeons, researchers and scientists, as it is part of a significant research project. The Department of Defense is helping fund much of the research in order to help wounded soldiers. And scientists believe the research could eventually help anyone with any type of transplant.

“We’re basically creating a hybrid organ,” explained Dr. Stuart Williams, the Bioficial Organs Program director with the Cardiovascular Innovation Institute. “It has the patient’s own cells with the donor’s cells.”

Aker’s donated hands were injected with some of her own fat cells before the surgery. "It turns out there are a huge number of regenerative cells, therapeutic cells and stem cells that reside in your fat,” said Williams.

Researchers believe this is helping trick Aker’s body into accepting the hands as her own and minimizing the chance of rejection. Williams said Aker is regaining the use and functions of her hands “very rapidly,” but these results are still preliminary.

Kaufman said the Department of Defense is interested in the practical impact this research could have on wounded soldiers. Armor protects a soldier’s core, but not the limbs, and a wounded limb can drastically affect quality of life. Kaufman said the research going on in Aker’s hands could eventually impact all types of transplants.

"This technology could help civilians,” said Kaufman. “You know, people who have had catastrophic tissue loss from a car accident, or other types of trauma, or even cancer surgery. There's literally millions that could benefit."

Many people have to wait a long time to find a good donor match. If using a patient’s own fat cells will help limit rejection, this research could also increase the amount of potential donor matches.

"This may allow us to use not only hands, but hearts and kidneys, livers, and pancreas from donors that may not be a perfect match,” said Williams. “This may allow us to transplant organs that may have a poorer match. That will increase the numbers of organs that can be utilized in a transplant."

A big risk in any type of transplant surgery is using immune suppressant drugs to help minimize the risk of rejection. But these drugs can also have a long-term effect of attacking other organs in the body or even confusing the body to not recognize other dangerous cells, like cancer cells. Williams hopes this research with fat cells can help reduce the amount of drugs a patient would need to use.

And benefits of this research go beyond hand transplants. Kaufman said it could also impact people who were born without hands or legs. It is also impacting nerve studies with patients getting transplants after decades of living without a limb. And Kaufman believes it could also make a difference in healing wounds, which could greatly impact people with diabetes.

"I don't think many people realize they are world leaders," said Kaufman of the surgeons and scientists on this research team. "Louisville should be proud. I'm very proud to work with this team. It's a jewel in our crown."

And far into the future, Williams hopes this research could help patients heal on their own. "We can basically take cells from a patient's body and reform these organs such that when they go back into or onto the patient, these organs are made entirely from a person's own cells,” said Williams.

Aker’s surgery was a team effort between Jewish Hospital, KentuckyOne Health, the Christine M. Kleinert Institute for Hand and Microsurgery, and the University of Louisville. To read more about Aker’s double-hand transplant, click here.

Hand and face transplants are not the same as life-saving organ transplants. So they are not included when someone registers as an organ donor. Kaufman explained an organ procurement agency will carefully approach a family about donating hands or a face only after organs have been donated.

In Kentucky, hospitals and doctors must have a family’s consent to honor a decision to donate, even if the deceased signed a donor card. So it’s important to discuss organ and tissue donation with your family.

For more information, you can call the Kentucky Organ Donor Affiliates (KODA) at 1-800-525-3456.

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