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What is Transplant Immunology?

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  • Written By: Mary McMahon
  • Edited By: Kristen Osborne
  • Last Modified Date: 15 November 2016
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Transplant immunology is the study of immune responses to transplantation of organs and other donor material, for the purpose of preventing rejection and increasing transplant success. This field includes researchers working in lab settings on transplant medicine, as well as doctors who interact directly with patients and perform transplants. People with a variety of medical and scientific backgrounds can pursue careers in transplant immunology, with many research centers using interdisciplinary teams for research.

The risk of rejection is one of the key obstacles with transplanting donor tissue and other materials. If the recipient's immune system identifies the transplanted material as foreign and dangerous, it will attack, degrading the material. This can lead to death or severe illness for the recipient. Transplant immunologists study how the immune system responds to transplants with the goal of finding a way to interrupt it and encourage the body to accept the donor tissue.

One aspect of transplant immunology involves screening donors and recipients to identify good matches. In addition to matching by blood type, researchers can also check for a number of other characteristics, searching for things like proteins in the donor material that the recipient's body will attack. Matching can take time if someone has an unusual blood type or other characteristics. By matching donors and recipients as precisely as possible, people can reduce the risk of rejection.

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Another area of interest involves the development of anti-rejection drugs. Many of these work by suppressing immune responses so the recipient's body cannot start to attack the donor material. Developing drugs to suppress rejection without interfering with the immune system's ability to fight off actual infections is of interest to many researchers. Researchers develop drug regimens, study potential candidates for anti-rejection drugs, and follow up on patients to see how well they tolerate specific drugs.

Transplant immunology is also a topic of interest for people developing artificial transplant materials, such as heart valves made from plastics and metals, grafts cultured in a lab using donor cells, or grafts of animal origin. The body usually responds to foreign objects by rejecting them, and developing effective transplants requires understanding how and where the body tags foreign materials to see if it is possible to develop artificial transplant materials that will not trigger a rejection response.

People interested in transplant immunology careers will need to go to medical school or pursue graduate work in the sciences with a focus on immunology and related topics. Education for people in these fields can last 12 years or more.

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