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Freed From Immunosuppressants

Alive but miserable after her first kidney transplant, Jennifer Searl jumped at a second chance—one that would wean her off powerful antirejection drugs with extensive side effects.

By Charles Slack // The MGH Research Issue 2011
jen searle

Justin Gabbard

By 2002, in her early twenties, Jennifer Searl had spent nearly half her life dealing with failed kidneys. So when she heard about an experimental procedure that might free her from her living hell of organ rejection and drug side effects, she didn’t hesitate to be the first test case.

At age 13, Searl, who had a disorder called Alport syndrome, received a kidney from her father. Doctors prescribed a regimen of powerful immunosuppressant drugs, as many as 20 pills a day, which produced debilitating side effects, including growths on her foot that made it difficult to walk. When the medications were scaled back to limit the side effects, her body began rejecting her father’s kidney.

The procedure that might give her a new kidney—and let her stop taking immunosuppressants—involved inducing mixed chimerism, a state in which her body incorporated some of another person’s tissues. An MGH team, including A. Benedict Cosimi, head of the transplantation unit at the time, and David Sachs, director of the hospital’s Transplantation Biology Research Center, would inject bone marrow from a new kidney donor at the same time the organ was transplanted. Searl’s kidney would come from her mother, and though it wasn’t a perfect genetic match, the team hoped that the mother’s immune cells would prevent rejection.

After surgery Searl was isolated for two weeks in a sterilized room and then put on a mild immunosuppressant for several months. Now 32, she has been without immunosuppressants for nine years and counting, and is a health educator at MGH.“It’s a good way for me to give back,” she says. “I consider MGH a second home.”

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