[Editor's note: We recently looked at benchmarks in kidney transplant history. Today more on the kidney and why it's so important.]
The Kidney’s Critical Role
The kidney’s well-being is essential for the rest of the body. It acts as the main filtering system for wastes and the major factor in excreting them from the body.
With each heartbeat, about one-fifth of the blood supply floods into the kidney. The organ contains enormous numbers of “nephrons’’ containing microscopic tubes. They are sized precisely to strain undesirable waste chemicals from the blood stream.
Each human has two kidneys and easily can survive with a single one. But various genetic diseases, infections or poisons can destroy the nephrons in both kidneys.
Once the kidneys are incapacitated, the damage is life- threatening. Doctors today can offer two main treatments to patients with terminal renal disease – transplantation or dialysis.
Although individual cases differ, Mayo Clinic doctors tend to favor transplants because of better and longer-lasting results. Kidney transplants can be performed at almost any age.
Medical Advances that Made a Difference Over 50 Years
Kidney transplant surgeries are possible due to ongoing, significant biomedical advances. Perhaps the single most important advance involves preventing the recipient’s immune system from rejecting the donated kidney.
• Prednisone – a steroid used in the early days of transplantation and still used today
• Azathioprine – introduced in 1968
• Cyclosporine – approved in 1983 and in wide use today
Doctors today can “precondition” the recipient’s blood to remove antibodies that would trigger rejection of a donated kidney.
Antibiotics, antimicrobial and related medicines – These drugs help ward off infections in patients with weakened immune systems.
Laparoscopy has greatly reduced the size of incisions and shortened recovery times for kidney donors. Mayo surgeons first started using the technique in 1999. It’s sometimes called “bellybutton surgery.” The surgeon inserts a long instrument with a camera through narrow holes in the donor’s abdomen, snips away a healthy kidney and recovers it through another small opening. Previously, the operation involved a much larger incision on one side of the donor’s back.