Grant breathes life into lung transplant center

Eight years ago, he sat in his living room, tethered to oxygen, his lungs rapidly deteriorating from pulmonary fibrosis. If Tom Telford had not become Patient No. 199, he probably would have gone on this way, unable to breathe, until he died.

That year, 2002, Telford became the 199th patient to receive a lung transplant at Shands at UF. He can’t run a marathon and struggles walking up a flight of stairs, but Patient No. 199 is alive. But for many lung transplant recipients, a successful transplant does not always ensure years of survival.

“At five years post-transplant, only 50 percent of recipients survive,” said Telford, a semi-retired nuclear engineer who lives in Gainesville. “I was No. 199. I knew 195 to 205. I exercised with these people and got to know them. Now, many of those people are not alive. It is pretty depressing.”

To help change these statistics, the state of Florida has awarded a $1 million grant to UF to establish a lung transplant center and fund research projects focused on problems such as chronic rejection, the most common reason why patients die after a lung transplant. The center emerged in 2010 from the flagship lung transplant program.

“Of the solid organ transplants, the survival rate of lung transplants is unfortunately the lowest,” said Mark Brantly, M.D., division chief of pulmonary medicine in the UF College of Medicine and a director of research efforts for the new lung transplant center. “There are many challenges in transplanting lungs not the least of which is chronic rejection. We are looking to develop a multicollege research group that will help advance our knowledge about rejection and will develop new therapeutics to improve our patients’ lives.”

According to the U.S. Organ Procurement and Transplantation Network and the Scientific Registry of Transplant Recipients, about half of lung transplant recipients are still alive after five years, and only about one-quarter of them make it to 10 years.

The funding has already been used to support five research projects involving researchers from the UF colleges of Medicine and Engineering. The projects include the following:

A study led by Thomas Beaver, M.D., will examine rehabilitation of donor lungs using what is known as perfusion technology. Only about one-quarter of potential donor lungs are able to be transplanted into patients, but studies have shown that attaching lungs to a machine that tricks the organs into thinking they are still inside the body and infusing them with medicine could rehabilitate them for transplant.

Maher Baz, M.D., director of the lung transplant center, will study whether an excess of cells known as T-helper cell 17 could play a role in triggering chronic rejection.

Frederick Kaye, M.D., and his team are studying tumors associated with lung transplants.

Studies led by Jay Patel, M.D., and CQ Xia, M.D., Ph.D., will examine whether lungs treated with an antioxidant protein prior to transplant could help stave off chronic rejection.

Chris Batich, Ph.D., and Gregory Schultz, Ph.D., are looking into the development of a device that could potentially remove antibodies associated with rejection from the blood of patients.

“This grant will allow us to put our three objectives into motion: education, clinical care and research in lung transplantation,” Baz said. “We are hoping this will allow us to advance lung transplant knowledge, which in turn will lead to more funding from varied sources that will advance knowledge further and ultimately help our patients.”

After his transplant in 2002, Telford set up a charitable trust to donate money to Baz’s research and UF’s transplant efforts. But after raising $62,000 during a tennis benefit in 2007, he teamed with John Ross, M.D., a professor emeritus of pediatrics in the College of Medicine, to take fundraising efforts a step further. The duo, along with other transplant recipients, lobbied state legislators for help. After three years, the help came through.

Aside from the research projects, the funds will also go toward the first steps toward developing an improved pediatric lung transplant program through Shands Transplant Center at Shands Children’s Hospital at UF.

“Shands is the best,” Telford said. “They have performed the most transplants, and it is the obvious place to develop this resource for the state of Florida.