The pioneering heart and thymus transplant that saved a baby in the US and could revolutionize medicine


US doctors say a baby named Easton made medical history by becoming the first person in the world to receive a combined heart and thymus transplant.

The pioneering procedure was done to save the baby’s life, but doctors hope it could also revolutionize the field of organ transplants.

The donated thymus tissue should help keep your body from rejecting the new heart.

Months after the surgery, tests reveal that Easton is doing well.

Thymus tissue is working, which means your body is building vital immune cells that can reduce or even eliminate the need for you to take immunosuppressive drugs (which prevent rejection of the transplanted organ) throughout your life.

“We’re very excited. This concept of tolerance has always been the holy grail of transplants, and now we’re right at the door,” said one of Easton’s doctors, Joseph Turek, from Duke University Hospital in North Carolina, USA.

“This has the potential to revolutionize solid organ transplantation in the future.”

The thymus is a gland that helps the development of T cells, which fight foreign substances in the body. It teaches these immune cells what is “self” and what is not – and therefore what can be attacked.

Doctors believe that offering Easton cultured thymus tissue from the same donor who gave him a heart should help his body adopt the new tissue.

Easton’s story

Easton was born with a weak heart and problems with his immune system.

He spent the first seven months of his life in the hospital – some of them on life support – and had to undergo several heart surgeries, as well as treatment for recurring infections that his body could not fight on its own.

“It helped a little bit, but it was basically a band-aid for us to survive until the transplant,” recalls his mother, Kaitlyn Sinnamon.

The doctors applied to the FDA, the US health regulatory body, for authorization to perform an experimental type of transplant that had not been done in combination before, as far as they know.

Because Easton needed a new heart and, independently, a new thymus gland, the FDA approved the procedures, which were performed in August 2021, when Easton was six months old.

“It was a really nice surprise. We had the experience to do both,” Turek said.

“The work we did in the lab was based on using the thymus in conjunction with heart transplantation to develop tolerance — basically, retraining the immune system and getting the thymus from the same donor and the heart to grow together.”

“We thought this was an opportunity for Easton. And it could apply to all solid organs in the future, if it works.”

Much more research is needed before that, including whether it is feasible to remove and replace the thymus in people who have one that is already fully functioning.

The medical team plans to wean Easton off the immunosuppressive drugs at some point to see how he progresses.

“I hope that as he grows up, he will be proud of his scars and know that he not only saved his own life, but he also saved other people’s lives,” says Kaitlyn.

read more on the bbc

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