Kimberly Drake, right, donated her left kidney to her 25-year-old son, Cameron, in October. (Courtesy photo)

Through clinical advances, VCU Health is transplanting more kidneys than ever

The VCU Health Hume-Lee Transplant Center conducted more kidney transplants in 2018 than any other year in its history thanks to its participation in clinical trials that are expanding donor pools.

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Kimberly Drake knew her son was in good hands. But the Powhatan County mother couldn’t calm her nerves. It was a mix of angst and excitement. Her 25-year-old son, Cameron, needed a kidney, and he was about to receive one.

It was a cool October morning. Kimberly and Cameron were surrounded by family and friends, all gathered in a waiting area at Virginia Commonwealth University Medical Center.

Her mind racing, Kimberly decided to check social media on her phone. She saw a post from Cameron, seated just a few chairs away. It’s a post she will never forget. It read, in part, “A mother’s love is unfathomable. Today, my beautiful mom is donating her kidney to me. She gave me life once and she’s going to do it again today. I can’t even begin to express my love and thankfulness for my mom.”

“I looked at Cam and said, ‘Why did you do that? You’re going to make me cry,’” Kimberly said.

It was surgery day for mother and son. Cameron was suffering from kidney failure. He was diagnosed in April after returning from a training trip for his new job, which, of all things, is as a biomedical technician to maintain and repair kidney dialysis machines.

Before long, a surgeon-controlled robot successfully removed Kimberly’s left kidney, which was transplanted into Cameron. Mother and son eventually made their way to the VCU Health Hume-Lee Transplant Center’s dedicated transplant unit. Their stay would be brief. Cameron was discharged in three days, Kimberly in two.

“Not long after the surgery I was up walking,” Cameron said. “The more I walked, the better and better I felt. Now, I feel great.”

History in the making

With their prayers answered, Kimberly and Cameron admit they now have a unique mother-son bond. They also helped mark a high point at Hume-Lee. Cameron’s procedure was the 162nd kidney transplant at the center in 2018, a record in its 61-year history.

The transplant center went on to transplant a total of 202 kidneys in 2018. Of that, 38 were from living donors. That’s an amazing number of second chances, said Marlon Levy, M.D., chair of the Division of Transplant Surgery and director of the Hume-Lee Transplant Center.

“This milestone is a tribute to the wonderful professionalism of all our Hume-Lee team members, and to the trust that our patients and their families place in us to provide the very best care for their loved ones,” Levy said. “We are committed to being at the forefront of care excellence for the treatment of kidney disease and kidney transplantation.”

Robotic-assisted transplantation is the latest technical milestone in kidney transplant surgery. (Photo by Allen Jones, University Relations)
Robotic-assisted transplantation is the latest technical milestone in kidney transplant surgery. (Photo by Allen Jones, University Relations)

A blockbuster year

The number of successful kidney transplants headlined a remarkable year at Hume-Lee. In June, Chandra Bhati, M.D., associate professor of surgery at the VCU School of Medicine, became the first person on the East Coast to complete a successful robotic-assisted kidney implantation. Bhati implanted a kidney from a living organ donor to a recipient using the surgical system’s robotic arms, which presents a less-invasive option with a smaller incision site, less pain for the patient and a speedier recovery time without compromising the transplanted kidney’s functionality.

Hume-Lee also made strides toward advancements in kidney research with two separate clinical trials. In 2018, Hume-Lee Transplant Center physicians began participating in a trial for kidney transplants between HIV-positive donors and recipients. Many patients living with HIV require kidney transplants due to the long-term effects of their treatment. This research seeks to learn whether kidney transplants from HIV-positive donors to HIV-positive recipients are safe and effective. The collective effort would allow the transplant of approximately 500 more kidneys per year.

In a second study, Hume-Lee staff researched the use of hepatitis C kidneys. The trial involves transplantation of a deceased donor’s kidney infected with the hepatitis C virus into a recipient who does not have hepatitis C, and then curing the virus. As part of Hume-Lee’s trial protocol, patients receive oral direct-acting antiviral medication to prevent the transmission of hepatitis C from the donor to the recipient. This approach has allowed most patients to avoid taking hepatitis C treatment. Initial study results showed that after successful treatment there is an extremely low chance of hepatitis C reoccurrence in the recipient’s bloodstream.

“This is great teamwork with dedicated staff, all with the same goal — benefitting our patients,” said Gaurav Gupta, M.D., associate professor and associate medical director of the kidney transplant program at VCU Health, who serves as principle investigator for both studies.

“Every day patients do not require dialysis is a good day,” said Richard Sterling, M.D., chief of hepatology for Hume-Lee, professor and co-investigator of the hepatitis C study. “Patients who have been on the waitlist for some time are now receiving transplants made possible through great collaboration of Hume-Lee nephrologists, hepatologists and supporting staff. We have had great success with this team approach.”

Gaurav Gupta, M.D., and Merv Baldecchi of VCU Health's Hume-Lee Transplant Center explore kidney transplants from HIV-positive donors to HIV-positive patients. (Photo by Joe Morris, Department of Surgery)
Gaurav Gupta, M.D., and Merv Baldecchi of VCU Health's Hume-Lee Transplant Center explore kidney transplants from HIV-positive donors to HIV-positive patients. (Photo by Joe Morris, Department of Surgery)

Increasing access to lifesaving organs

Through Hume-Lee’s participation in the HIV and hepatitis C studies, 25 patients in 2018 received kidneys under circumstances that were once not possible. In late 2018, Hume-Lee physicians confirmed through their research that the use of hepatitis C kidneys is safe, effective and allowed for shorter wait times for patients, affording more people the opportunity to return to a life without dialysis with organs that had once been discarded. Now, staff will present this as a choice to patients on the transplant center’s waitlist who may benefit.

“‘No,’ is not a word we often use,” said Anne King, M.D., medical director of Hume-Lee’s kidney and pancreas transplant program and professor of internal medicine and surgery. “We find opportunities for patients who have not been considered as candidates at other transplant centers. Our team is willing to take on the most complex patients with a number of medical issues. We welcome that challenge.”

Kimberly and Cameron Drake did not participate in any clinical trials, but the drive to increase access to kidneys for those in need is a mission to which they can relate.

“It’s exciting to know that all these people now have a second chance of life,” Kimberly said. “We are now proud to be part of that Hume-Lee family.”