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Hope for Lung Transplant Patients


Researcher at Dignity Health St. Joseph’s believes science is on the brink of a solution to lung transplant rejection

A scientist at the Norton Thoracic Institute Research Laboratory at Dignity Health St. Joseph’s Hospital and Medical Center believes that within the next five to ten years, researchers will discover a solution to the complex processes that cause chronic rejection hindering the long-term success of lung transplantation.

Most patients who receive a lung transplant will start experiencing signs of chronic rejection within five years. This is an irreversible process of scarring that causes the continual deterioration of the transplanted lungs. As director of the Norton Thoracic Institute Research Laboratory, Thalachallour Mohanakumar, PhD, will continue to expand on groundbreaking research into the cause of lung transplant rejection. Research studies led by Dr. Mohanakumar indicate that chronic rejection is caused not only by an alloimmune response, where the body attacks the transplanted tissue, but more importantly by autoimmune response against tissue-specific substances naturally present in the body.

“The research laboratory's primary interest is how this autoimmune process comes into play in lung transplant rejection and what we can do to prevent it,” said Dr. Mohanakumar. “Our researchers are asking, ‘Why does rejection happen? What is the mechanism behind it?’ Once we know this mechanism, we can treat it. We’ve learned a great deal already and there is a strong possibility that we will discover a way to prevent or treat chronic rejection within a few years.”

At the Norton Thoracic Institute, one of the largest and most advanced lung disease programs in the Southwest, Dr. Mohanakumar oversees research initiatives dedicated to improving lung transplantation outcomes and has focused the efforts of his teams on research into chronic rejection. The Institute’s new research laboratory is a 7,442-square-foot state-of-the-art facility outfitted with the latest technology to accommodate four principal investigators along with several research investigators and their teams, who also conduct research into lung and esophageal cancer.  The Norton Thoracic Institute is the second busiest lung transplant center in the U.S., having performed more than 450 lung transplantations since opening in 2007. It also has strong outcomes with one-year survival rates above the national average—near 90 percent.

“Once the riddle of chronic rejection is solved, we can expect transplanted lungs to last indefinitely,” says Ross Bremner, MD, PhD, executive director of the Norton Thoracic Institute. “This is really the ‘holy grail’ of transplantation.”

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