From the Journals

U.S. kidney transplants grow in number and success



Kidney transplantation has recently been happening at a record pace and with unprecedented success despite patients having more risk factors than ever before.

Illustration of kidneys HYWARDS/Thinkstock

During 2016-2019, U.S. centers performed kidney transplants in nearly 77,000 patients, a jump of almost 25% compared with 4-year averages of about 62,000 patients throughout 2004-2015. That works out to about 15,000 more patients receiving donor kidneys, Sundaram Hariharan, MD, and associates reported in the New England Journal of Medicine in a review of all U.S. renal transplantations performed during 1996-2019.

Dr. Sundaram Hariharan, professor of medicine and medical director of kidney and pancreas transplantation, University of Pittsburgh Medical Center

Dr. Sundaram Hariharan

Coupled with the volume uptick during this 24-year period were new lows in graft losses and patient deaths. By 2018, mortality during the first year following transplantation occurred at about a 1% rate among patients who had received a kidney from a living donor, and at about a 3% rate when the organ came from a deceased donor, nearly half the rate of 2 decades earlier, in 1996. Rates of first-year graft loss during 2017 were also about half of what they had been in 1996, occurring in about 2% of patients who received a living donor organ and in about 6% of those who got a kidney from a deceased donor during 2017.

“Twenty years ago, kidney transplantation was the preferred option compared with dialysis, and even more so now,” summed up Dr. Hariharan, a senior transplant nephrologist and professor of medicine and surgery at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center and first author of the report. Kidney transplantation survival at U.S. centers “improved steadily over the past 24 years, despite patient variables becoming worse,” he said in an interview.

Kidney recipients are older, more obese, and have more prevalent diabetes

During the period studied, kidney transplant recipients became on average older and more obese, and had a higher prevalence of diabetes; the age of organ donors grew as well. The prevalence of diabetes among patients who received a kidney from a deceased donor increased from 24% during 1996-1999 to 36% during 2016-2019, while diabetes prevalence among recipients of an organ from a living donor rose from 25% in 1996-1999 to 29% during 2016-2019.

The improved graft and patient survival numbers “are very encouraging trends,” said Michelle A. Josephson, MD, professor and medical director of kidney transplantation at the University of Chicago, who was not involved with the report. “We have been hearing for a number of years that short-term graft survival had improved, but I’m thrilled to learn that long-term survival has also improved.”

The report documented 10-year survival of graft recipients during 2008-2011 of 67%, up from 61% during 1996-1999, and a 10-year overall graft survival rate of 54% in the 2008-2011 cohort, an improvement from the 42% rate in patients who received their organs in 1996-1999, changes Dr. Hariharan characterized as “modest.”

These improvements in long-term graft and patient survival are “meaningful, and particularly notable that outcomes improved despite increased complexity of the transplant population,” said Krista L. Lentine, MD, PhD, professor and medical director of living donation at Saint Louis University. But “despite these improvements, long-term graft survival remains limited,” she cautioned, especially because of risks for substantial complications from chronic immunosuppressive treatment including infection, cancer, glucose intolerance, and dyslipidemia.

The analysis reported by Dr. Hariharan and his associates used data collected by the Scientific Registry of Transplant Patients, run under contract with the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, which has tracked all patients who have had kidney transplants at U.S. centers since the late 1980s, said Dr. Hariharan. The database included just over 362,000 total transplants during the 24-year period studied, with 36% of all transplants involving organs from living donors with the remaining patients receiving kidneys from deceased donors.


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