BALTIMORE, Md. (WPVI) --Surgeons in Baltimore for the first time have transplanted organs between an HIV-positive donor and HIV-positive recipients, a long-awaited new option for patients with the AIDS virus whose kidneys or livers also are failing.
Johns Hopkins University announced Wednesday it did what it believes is the world's first HIV-to-HIV liver transplant and the first American HIV-to-HIV kidney transplant.
Both were taken from a deceased HIV positive donor and given to two HIV positive patients.
Those organs would ordinarily would have been thrown away because of the HIV infection.
The patients are remaining anonymous, but Hopkins says the kidney recipient is recuperating at home and the liver recipient is expected to be discharged soon.
Both were desperately waiting for these organs.
Doctors say allowing HIV positive patients to become donors is a game changer.
"For patients today, for those living with HIV, this is a very exciting time because now instead of having a very high risk of death while waiting on the list, every potential HIV positive donor is potential lives saved," said Johns Hopkins Transplant Surgeon Dr. Dorry Segev, who pushed for the repeal of the 25-year-old U.S. ban.
He estimates hundreds of HIV-positive patients could benefit every year.
During the past few decades, many advances have been made in treating HIV. It's gone from a death sentence to a manageable illness.
That means patients may live long enough to suffer organ failure, either because of the HIV or for some other reason.
In the U.S., HIV-positive patients already are eligible to receive transplants from HIV-negative donors just like anyone else on the waiting list.
Morris Murray has been living with HIV for more than 25 years.
But he says when he needed a liver transplant years ago, he almost died waiting. He finally got one from an HIV negative donor, but says if he'd been allowed to receive an HIV positive organ, he wouldn't have waited so long.
He's glad the ban has been lifted.
"We need to take full advantage of this advance in medicine and work together so all of us can live longer and healthier lives," said Murray.
Now he encourages others, regardless of HIV status, to become organ donors.
"When President Obama signed the HOPE Act, I registered to be a donor," said Murray. "There is no greater gift than the gift of life."
If the new approach works, one hope is that it could free up space on the waiting list as HIV-positive patients take advantage of organs available only to them.
The family of the anonymous organ donor offered a statement, thankful someone who fought the stigma of HIV was able to help others:
"She was a daughter, a mother, an auntie, best friend, and sister. She was a very boisterous soul, and set the mood wherever she went. from early childhood, she always stuck up for the underdog... HIV was not a choice she made, but she fought it for herself and our family every day. As we all know, HIV has a stigma, and unfortunately, people with the disease are at times treated differently," the statement began.
It ended saying, "She was able to leave this world helping those underdogs she fought so hard for. Our family was fortunate to have had her for the time we did, and blessed she is able to continue on within our hearts and the souls of so many she was able to help."
To become an organ donor, see the Gift of Life web page.