Scientists have successfully altered the blood type of three donor kidneys – a breakthrough that could increase the supply of kidneys available for transplant, particularly for ethnic minority groups who are less likely to find a match.
A kidney from someone with an A blood type cannot be transplanted to someone with a B blood type, nor the other way around.
But changing the blood type to the universal O will allow more transplants to take place, as this can be used for people with any blood type.
University of Cambridge researchers used a normothermic perfusion machine – a device which connects with a human kidney to pass oxygenated blood through the organ to better preserve it for future use – to flush blood infused with an enzyme through the deceased donor kidney.
The enzyme removed the blood type markers that line the blood vessels of the kidney, which led to the organ being converted to O type.
One person this game-changing discovery has given hope to is Ayesha Edmonson, a mother-of-two from Bury in Greater Manchester.
Ms Edmonson, who was diagnosed with stage-three chronic kidney disease in 1998 when she was pregnant with her first child, called the news “brilliant” and a “tremendous breakthrough”.
“It gives us hope to save thousands of lives across the world,” she added.
Ms Edmonson, who used to work in retail, saw her kidneys deteriorate during the COVID-19 lockdown, when she was told she would need a transplant.
However, she fears she might have to wait double or even triple the time of a white person, with consultants estimating it could take between six years and a decade.
According to last year’s NHS Blood and Transplant report, just over 9.2% of total organ donations came from black and minority ethnic donors, while they make up 33% of the kidney transplant waiting list.
“Though I already knew my condition was heading that way, it was still a bit of a shock,” Ms Edmonson said, remembering receiving the news.
“Because no matter how much you prepare, when you get news like that it’s tough going. It impacted me quite a lot mentally.”
She has recently started volunteering for Kidney Research UK, the charity which funded the Cambridge research.
The project has not reached the clinical trial stage, but is due to be published in the British Journal of Surgery in the coming months.
Serena MacMillan, a PhD student at the University of Cambridge, said the research “could potentially impact so many lives”.
“Our confidence was really boosted after we applied the enzyme to a piece of human kidney tissue and saw very quickly that the antigens were removed.
“After this, we knew that the process is feasible, and we just had to scale up the project to apply the enzyme to full-size human kidneys.”
‘Redressing the balance’
People from ethnic minority groups often wait a year longer for a transplant than white patients, so the study could have particular implications for them, experts say.
Dr Aisling McMahon, the executive director of research at Kidney Research UK, said she hoped the research would “redress the balance” over waiting times.
For Ms Edmonson, whose day-to-day life has become such a struggle because of the disease, the research provides hope for the future.
But she also has words in the present, for minorities unsure about organ donation because of what she feels are stigmas and a lack of awareness.
“People’s religious beliefs play an imperative role in making life-changing decisions,” she said.
“Even after the law changed, so everyone was automatically made an organ donor, many people decided to opt out (of the scheme), but I would say ‘think about it’.
“Because you’re giving someone a chance to live their life normally, to be able to work, to be able to raise a family and to be able to have wonderful adventures in life – and you really can’t argue with that.”