UCLA receives $8.4 million NIH grant to help liver transplant recipients stay healthier longer

UCLA has received an $8.4 million grant from the National Institutes of Health to research ways to help donated livers last longer and improve outcomes for transplant recipients.

The five-year grant is the fourth in a series from the NIH to the Dumont–UCLA Transplant Center to develop medications to prevent the body from rejecting a transplanted liver and help patients live longer, healthier lives. The grants have totaled more than $13 million.

The initiative is headed by Dr. Jerzy Kupiec-Weglinski, the Paul I. Terasaki Chair in Surgery and vice chair of research at the Department of Surgery at the David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA. The project brings together the expertise and experience of researchers from the UCLA departments of surgery, pathology and laboratory medicine, and microbiology, immunology and molecular genetics.

“There are less than 10 program project grants in the country funded by the NIH that are related to organ transplantation, so this is a big deal,” Kupiec-Weglinski said. “Through this project, we believe we will develop novel therapeutic strategies that can be directly applied in transplant patients.”

UCLA Health - Dr. Jerzy Kupiec-Weglinski

Around 6,000 liver transplant surgeries are performed every year in the U.S., and UCLA’s liver transplant program was the nation’s fourth busiest last year, according to the United Network for Organ Sharing. UCLA doctors performed 161 liver transplants in 2016. The UCLA division of liver and pancreas transplantation is headed by Dr. Ronald Busuttil and is a part of the department of surgery.

About 90 percent of people who undergo liver transplants at UCLA survive at least one year after their surgeries, which is the mark of success for the procedure.

“However, the long-term outcomes are not so great for many recipients, regardless of where they receive their transplant,” Kupiec-Weglinski said. “Graft rejection and a lack of donor organs continue to be major problems for organ recipients.”

On average, transplanted livers remain viable for 15 years, so recipients who live that long after their transplant must eventually return to the waiting list for a new organ. Organ recipients also have a higher risk of opportunistic infections because they must remain on immune-suppressing medications for life in order to prevent organ rejection.

“This project addresses two of the major problems in transplantation worldwide: the decreasing quality of donor organs and a widening disparity between the increasing numbers of potential transplant recipients and inadequate donor organ supply,” Kupiec-Weglinski said. 

Learn more about the immunity, inflammation, infection and transplantation research theme, or I3T, at UCLA.

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