July 28, 2017

A collaborative research team at the Yerkes National Primate Research Center and Georgia Tech is studying non-invasive imaging as a way to detect immune rejection of transplanted organs, thanks to a $2.4 million, five-year grant from the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases.

Currently, medical professionals use blood tests and biopsies – removing a small sample of the organ tissue – to monitor how well a new kidney or liver is adapting to its new home. But with each biopsy, the patient must endure a small surgery so the organ can be accessed yet again. These follow-up procedures can result in hemorrhaging and infection – a major problem for anyone, but especially someone still recovering from the trauma of a transplant.

Andrew Adams, MD, PhD, a researcher at the Yerkes National Primate Research Center and an assistant professor of surgery in Emory University School of Medicine, is part of the team working to identify a non-invasive method for monitoring organs post-transplant.

“Patients often require multiple biopsies to assess response to treatment, thus putting them at risk of complications each time they undergo a separate procedure,” says Adams. “In addition, a biopsy only samples a small part of the transplanted organ.” In other words, just because part of the organ is adapting, doesn’t mean all of it is.

Adams and his colleague at Georgia Tech, Phil Santangelo, are studying the use of positron emission tomography (PET) to monitor post-transplant progress. PET is already used to diagnose heart disease and monitor cancer. Using a variant called “immunoPET,” the researchers can see particular types of immune cells infiltrating the transplanted organ, alerting them to the possibility of rejection. The researchers are conducting the study with mice and nonhuman primates first and hope the results will prove successful so they can advance to human clinical trials.

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