What is Immune Tolerance, and Why is it Important?

Samantha Hil, Vice President, Marketing, NKR

If you are a candidate for a kidney transplant, you might have heard the term “immune tolerance.” What does immune tolerance mean, and why is it important for kidney transplant recipients?

The immune system acts as the body’s defense force, keeping it healthy by fighting off foreign invaders like bacteria and viruses. However, sometimes it can mistake healthy tissue for a foreign invader and try to attack it.

This can happen with organ transplants. When a person receives an organ from someone else through transplant surgery, the recipient’s immune system may see the new organ as a foreign object. Technically, the immune system is correct: the transplanted organ came from someone else’s body and therefore is not part of the recipient’s body.

The problem arises because there is no way to tell the immune system: this organ may be foreign, but it’s here to help! The immune system only knows that it doesn’t belong, and may launch an attack against it. This can lead to complications and even the loss of the transplanted kidney.

This is not what we want to happen when an organ has been transplanted. The medical team has done its utmost to find a kidney that is medically compatible with the transplant recipient and will be able to function effectively in place of the recipient’s own kidneys, which are no longer working at a level that can keep them healthy.

This is where immune tolerance comes in. Immune tolerance is like teaching your immune system to recognize and accept certain things, like a new kidney, without launching an attack. In the context of kidney transplants, it’s crucial for the body to accept the new kidney as its own and not reject it.

Doctors use various techniques to promote immune tolerance in kidney transplant recipients. One common method is through immunosuppressive medications, which help reduce the immune response, thus preventing rejection. Some new research is focused on new techniques to induce immune tolerance without the need for long-term medication.

In short, immune tolerance plays a crucial role in the success of kidney transplants. By teaching the immune system to accept the new kidney as a “friend” rather than treating it as an enemy, patients have a better chance of enjoying long-term health and improved quality of life post-transplant.