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New anti-rejection drug for kidney recipients shows better survival rates

Story Photo

Transplant surgeon and School of Medicine Dean Christian Larsen (left) and Emory Transplant Center Executive Director Thomas Pearson helped develop belatacept. Photography by Kay Hinton

Kidney transplant recipients must take medications to prevent their immune systems from rejecting their new organs. But long-term use of calcineurin inhibitors (CNIs), the immunosuppressants most transplant patients have relied on for nearly 20 years, can damage the transplanted kidneys and lead to cardiovascular disease and diabetes.

A seven-year, multi-center study of kidney transplant recipients has shown for the first time that an alternative drug, belatacept, which controls the immune system and prevents graft rejection, has a significantly better record of patient and organ survival than CNIs.

Transplant surgeon Christian Larsen, dean of Emory School of Medicine, and Emory Transplant Center executive director Thomas Pearson played key roles in developing belatacept, which is produced by Bristol Myers Squibb and was approved by the FDA in 2011.

Results from the worldwide study, led by Larsen and UCSF kidney transplant surgeon Flavio Vincenti, were published in January in the New England Journal of Medicine.

The average life span of the recipient of a deceased donor kidney—the most common type—is eight to 12 years. The risk of death or loss of the transplanted kidney after seven years was about 13 percent for belatacept, compared with 22 percent for cyclosporine A.

“While the best uses of belatacept still need additional definition, these results indicate that using belatacept as standard of care has the potential to improve long-term outcomes,” says Larsen.

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