Public Release: 

Blood test could give two month warning of kidney transplant rejection

NIHR Biomedical Research Centre at Guy's and St Thomas' and King's College London

New research from the NIHR Guy's and St Thomas' Biomedical Research Centre has found a way to predict rejection of a kidney transplant before it happens, by monitoring the immune system of transplant patients.

The researchers have found that a signature combination of seven immune genes in blood samples can predict rejection earlier than current techniques. Monitoring these markers in transplant patients with regular blood tests could help doctors intervene before any damage to the organ occurs, and improve outcomes for patients.

A renal transplant offers the best treatment for patients whose kidneys have failed, with around 3,000 carried out annually in the UK. Acute rejection occurs when the body's immune system begins to attack the donated organ. This is a common complication in the first year after the transplant, affecting around 2 in 10 patients. It can affect the lifespan of the transplanted organ.

Currently, acute rejection can only be confirmed by taking a biopsy of the transplanted organ. While acute rejection can be treated, this can only be done when the organ is already affected and damage has already occurred.

Once the new technique is validated further, it has the potential to offer clinicians the use of a simple blood test to predict rejection. Being able to intervene before the event will help prevent damage to patients, and extend the life of the transplanted organ.

Dr Paramit Chowdhury, a consultant nephrologist at Guy's and St Thomas' and author on the paper said: "This advance could make a huge difference to our ability to monitor kidney transplant patients and treat rejection earlier. It may also save some patients from an unnecessary biopsy. It is a first step in getting a better insight into the status of a patient's immune system, allowing better tailoring of the patient's anti-rejection treatment.

"A big challenge at the moment is that even the best transplanted organ has a limited lifespan of up to 30 years. By being able to pick up signs of rejection early, we might increase the lifespan of the organ and help patients have a better quality of life, for longer."

The team recruited 455 patients who received a kidney transplant at Guy's Hospital and followed these patients over the first year of their transplant, collecting regular blood and urine samples. Using these samples and analysing the data over time, they developed a signature combination of seven genes that differentiated patients who developed rejection from those who did not.

They then tested for the signature via a blood test in a separate cohort of patients, and validated that it predicted transplant rejection.

The team also identified a six gene signature for a less common form of complication. BK-virus nephropathy can look clinically similar to acute rejection, but requires a very different therapy - reducing immunosuppression. Being able to distinguish between these complications would mean clinicians can ensure that patients receive the most appropriate treatment.

Dr Maria Hernandez Fuentes, visiting senior lecturer at King's College London and author on the study, said: "Biomarkers are naturally occurring genes or proteins that appear in the blood, which can tell us what is happening in the body. This is vital in determining the best course of treatment for patients. We were able to monitor the genes that were being expressed in transplant patients and map how these reflected their clinical outcomes.

"Being able to tell the difference between BK-virus nephropathy and acute rejection, which can look very similar in patients, just shows how we can use these molecular techniques to complement clinical practice.

"Further evaluation will be needed to fully validate the technique is reliable enough for clinical use, and it will be exciting to develop this research further."

The research is published in the journal EBioMedicine. It was supported by the National Institute for Health Research Biomedical Research Centre at Guy's and St Thomas' and King's College London, the Medical Research Council Centre for Transplantation and the EU (Framework Programme 7). Anonymised clinical data was also provided by the NIHR Health Informatics Collaborative.

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Contact: Anna Perman, Communications Manager, NIHR Biomedical Research Centre at Guy's and St Thomas' and King's College London tel: 07717 817 714 or e-mail: anna.perman@gstt.nhs.uk

Notes to editors:

About the NIHR Biomedical Research Centre at Guy's and St Thomas'

The National Institute for Health Research (NIHR) Biomedical Research Centre (BRC) at Guy's and St Thomas' NHS Foundation Trust and King's College London works to develop and deliver new medicines and diagnostics to patients, drive research and innovation into the NHS, and provide national systems leadership for maximum impact to patients.

With our research activity organised into nine themes, each holding an individual Athena Swan Silver award highlighting our commitment to equality and diversity, and supported by our interdisciplinary, world leading infrastructure, we are poised to deliver the next step change for the health and wealth of our nation. http://www.guysandstthomasbrc.nihr.ac.uk/

About the NIHR

The National Institute for Health Research (NIHR) is the nation's largest funder of health and care research. The NIHR:

  • Funds, supports and delivers high quality research that benefits the NHS, public health and social care

  • Engages and involves patients, carers and the public in order to improve the reach, quality and impact of research

  • Attracts, trains and supports the best researchers to tackle the complex health and care challenges of the future

  • Invests in world-class infrastructure and a skilled delivery workforce to translate discoveries into improved treatments and services

  • Partners with other public funders, charities and industry to maximise the value of research to patients and the economy

The NIHR was established in 2006 to improve the health and wealth of the nation through research, and is funded by the Department of Health and Social Care. In addition to its national role, the NIHR commissions applied health research to benefit the poorest people in low- and middle-income countries, using Official Development Assistance funding.

This work uses data provided by patients and collected by the NHS as part of their care and support and would not have been possible without access to this data. The NIHR recognises and values the role of patient data, securely accessed and stored, both in underpinning and leading to improvements in research and care. http://www.nihr.ac.uk/patientdata

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King's has an outstanding reputation for world-class teaching and cutting-edge research. In the 2014 Research Excellence Framework (REF), eighty-four per cent of research at King's was deemed 'world-leading' or 'internationally excellent' (3 and 4).

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