Making Heart Transplant History

When Charles Varnum received a heart transplant at the Cleveland Clinic, doctors hoped he would make medical history.

"We're hoping that he's gonna be our first patient that we've ever been able to completely remove all the drugs and then he won't reject his organ. Which will be a big breakthrough in transplantation," says Dr. Patrick McCarthy of the Cleveland Clinic.

To try to save Varnum a lifetime of powerful anti-rejection drugs, he was first treated with radiation to destroy some of his bone marrow--the building block of his immune system. Then after he received his new heart, he was given an injection of marrow taken from the same donor. If it blends with his own immune system, he should tolerate the heart without drugs.

"Maybe I wouldn't survive, but if I could help somebody else survive this, then I was willing to take that chance," says Varnum.

A bone marrow transplants poses its own set of problems. Unless it is closely matched, say from a relative, recipients run the risk of a condition called graft versus host disease in which the new marrow attacks the patient. It's fatal 80 percent of the time. But the researchers who pioneered this new concept may have found a way around that.

Researchers hope to turn around a process that is fatal 80% of the time

"The marrow will be processed to remove the bad cells that cause the complications that are associated with bone marrow transplants," says Dr. Susan Ilstadt.

Dr. Susan Ilstadt believes that by taking out all but the most primitive cells, called stem and facilitator cells, she can transplant mis-matched bone marrow.

"Essentially, what you are doing is having the donor's immune system living with the patient's immune system," says Ilstadt.

Not only may that eliminate the need for drugs, but also allow a wider choice of organs, and even more remarkably, pave the way for humans to tolerate transplants of animal organs.

"If we can get to that point where all of a sudden we have animal organs available like for instance a pig means that the problem with organ shortage is over," says Dr. McCarthy.

Doctors will know in six months if their experiment worked and whether they have forever changed the face of modern medicine.

Reported by CBS News Correspondent John Roberts