Advances in medicine continue to dazzle, and as proof, consider the idea of intestinal transplants.
That's right. In a limited number of surgeries over the last few decades, doctors have successfully replaced the small intestine in patients suffering from various conditions that have wreaked havoc on their digestive system.
When these patients no longer had the basic ability to eat and digest food, the surgery restored it and saved their lives.
From the Intestinal Transplant Association, based in Montreal, Canada, here are a few things to know about the burgeoning field of intestinal transplants:
- It came of age in the 1980s, with related advances in infection-fighting and immune-suppressing drugs. The ITA says that thanks to intestinal transplants almost 1,000 patients have been able to go off intravenous feeding, resume a normal diet and lead a healthy lifestyle.
- The most difficult aspects of intestinal transplants are the large number of white cells in the bowel, too often setting the stage for rejection, and the large number of gut bacteria, increasing the risk of infection.
- Intestinal transplants are often the best option when intestinal failure is caused by short bowel syndrome, usually occurring after a significant part of the small intestine has been surgically removed, for various reasons.
- Other conditions, such as Crohn's disease, tumors, digestive tract obstructions, malabsorption and motility disorders, and autoimmune enteritis, can indicate the need for a transplant as well. Sometimes doctors perform a combined intestinal-liver transplant.
- Children can have a congenital malformation of the small bowel, sometimes indicating the need for a transplant. It might have to do with the length of the small intestine, the lack of nerve endings to stimulate the movement of stool, the problem of one portion of the bowel sliding into the next, or other factors.
- Although progress is being made, intestinal transplants are not yet routine surgical procedures. The ITA says, though, that such transplants have a survival rate comparable to, or better than, lung transplants.