Surgeons in Baltimore have performed what’s thought to be the world’s first kidney transplant from a living donor with HIV, a milestone for patients with the AIDS virus who need a new organ. If other donors with HIV come forward, it could free up space on the transplant waiting list for everyone.
Nina Martinez of Atlanta traveled to Johns Hopkins University to donate a kidney to an HIV-positive stranger, saying she “wanted to make a difference in somebody else’s life” and counter the stigma that too often still surrounds HIV infection.
Many people think “somebody with HIV is supposed to look sick,” Martinez, 35, told The Associated Press before Monday’s operation. “It’s a powerful statement to show somebody like myself who’s healthy enough to be a living organ donor.”
Hopkins, which is making the transplant public, said both Martinez and the recipient of her kidney, who chose to remain anonymous, are recovering well.
“Here’s a disease that in the past was a death sentence and now has been so well controlled that it offers people with that disease an opportunity to save somebody else,” said Dr. Dorry Segev, a Hopkins surgeon who pushed for the HIV Organ Policy Equity, or HOPE, Act that lifted a 25-year U.S. ban on transplants between people with HIV.
There’s no count of how many HIV-positive patients are among the 113,000 people on the nation’s waiting list for an organ transplant. HIV-positive patients can receive transplants from HIV-negative donors just like anyone else.
Since 2016, 116 such kidney and liver transplants have been performed in the U.S. as part of a research study, according to the United Network for Organ Sharing, or UNOS, which oversees the transplant system. One question is whether receiving an organ from someone with a different strain of HIV than their own poses any risks, but so far there have been no safety problems, said UNOS chief medical officer Dr. David Klassen.
Hopkins’ Segev said the kidney transplant was a world first as doctors had hesitated to allow people still living with HIV to donate because of concern that their remaining kidney would be at risk of damage from the virus or older medications used to treat it.
But newer anti-HIV medications are safer and more effective, Segev said.
His team recently studied the kidney health of 40,000 HIV-positive people and concluded that those with well-controlled HIV and no other kidney-harming ailments like high blood pressure should face the same risks from living donation as someone without HIV.