Health Advice



Stem cells instead of drugs? Trial is testing a way to help strengthen transplant patients' immune systems

Madeline Buckley, Chicago Tribune on

Published in Health & Fitness

CHICAGO -- Before her mother’s kidney transplant, Arianna Barrett watched a medical professional carefully extract stem cells from her own neck with a feeling that she was observing scientific developments in real time.

Since her mother was diagnosed with kidney disease, Barrett, a 36-year-old Chicago teacher, always knew she wanted to donate a kidney to her mother, even though her mother, Margaret Rainey, had reservations about her daughter having a major surgery.

But the mother-daughter pair did more than share an organ. Doctors transplanted stem cells from Barrett into her mother to teach Rainey’s immune system to recognize her new kidney.

“It was a little daunting, but so cool to see how far the medicine has come,” Barrett said.

Rainey, a 54-year-old Chicago resident, is participating in a yearslong clinical trial at Northwestern Medicine that researchers hope will revolutionize transplants with a stem cell treatment meant to reduce the risk a body will reject a transplanted organ.

It means that, if the treatment is successful, organ recipients won’t have to take drugs to stop the body from rejecting the organ.


Those drugs reduce the body’s immune response — a danger for transplant recipients during the COVID-19 pandemic. They also come with increased risk of diabetes and some cancers, doctors said. And in the end, after years with the transplant, the body may still eventually reject the organ.

“We’re robbing Peter to pay Paul, if you will, with these medications,” said Dr. Joseph Leventhal, a professor of surgery and director of kidney transplantation at Northwestern Medicine, who leads the clinical study.

Rainey, who had her kidney transplant in 2019, is living without having to take immunosuppressants. She doesn’t have to remember to take a handful of pills each day and live with their side effects. She was tested for antibodies after receiving the COVID-19 vaccine and learned her immune system recognized the vaccine.

She recently caught COVID, but said she had mild symptoms.


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