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This New NIH Study Could Finally Pave the Way for HIV-Positive Organ Transplants

Getting an organ transplant is not, to put it lightly, a convenient or pleasant process. Beyond the obvious (and dangerous) hassle of having invasive surgery to correct for a devastating illness or injury, organs are simply hard to come by. People on the kidney transplant waiting list—which consists of 101,000 out of the 123,000 Americans waiting for an organ in any given year, according to the National Kidney Foundation—have less than a 17% chance of actually getting a transplant they desperately need. About 12 people in the U.S. die every day waiting for a kidney.

The situation is even more difficult for Americans with HIV, who face regulatory hurdles to receiving organ transplants. But a group of researchers hopes to help these patients with a new study aiming to prove the safety and effectiveness of transplants between HIV-positive people.

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The National Institutes of Health (NIH) funded project follows the passage of the HOPE Act, which was signed into law by former President Barack Obama in 2013. That legislation rolled back decades-long restrictions on HIV-positive people’s ability to donate organs; under the law, HIV-positive transplants are allowed for kidneys and livers if they’re done as part of a clinical study—like the new one being launched by NIH, which will track 160 kidney transplants, half of which will be done with HIV-positive organs. The hope is the results of this clinical research will end the regulatory stigma around these kinds of transplants once and for all.

Public health experts say it’s long past time that the U.S. reverse what amounts to a legal ban on HIV-positive organ donation. As Dr. Christine Durand, a John Hopkins professor leading the study, points out to NPR, 1.5% of U.S. patients receiving dialysis for advanced kidney disease carry the HIV virus, making the prospect of a new source of viable organs a key public health goal.

“Highly effective antiretroviral therapy and new antiviral drugs to treat hepatitis C have dramatically improved the health of people living with HIV, such that a young person newly diagnosed with HIV today can expect to live a nearly normal lifespan,” said National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID) director Dr. Anthony Fauci in a statement. “The HOPE Act of 2013 opened the door for researchers to explore a potential new source of donor organs for those living with HIV—a population with a significant and growing need for transplants. This study offers a chance to improve the health of those living with HIV, and increase the overall supply of transplantable organs.”