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By Felicia J. Persaud

News Americas, FORT LAUDERDALE, FL, Fri. April 12, 2024: In an ocean of bad news stories, one stood out as an early Easter miracle for me recently. In case you missed it – it involved an incredible immigrant doctor, a Black patient desperately in need of a new kidney, and a pig’s kidney.

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Dr. Leonardo V. Riella, Medical Directory for Kidney Transportation, c., of the Massachusetts General Hospital announced the first-in-the-world pig to human kidney transplant surgery. (Photo by David L. Ryan/The Boston Globe via Getty Images)

While many media reports focused on the story, hardly one focused on the immigrant heritage of this doctor. For me, that was the main story in the dark, stormy sea of negative xenophobic reports and comments on immigrants recently, including the “poison the blood” and “vermin” comments from the 2024 Republican nominee for President.

Dr. Leonardo V. Riella, the director of Kidney Transplantation at Massachusetts General Hospital, (MGH), who led the team that transplanted the first genetically engineered pig kidney into a living human, is an immigrant. He was born and trained early on in the South American nation of Brazil.

Dr. Riella graduated with his MD from the Federal University of Paraná in Curitiba, Brazil in 2003. He completed his residency in internal medicine at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in 2007. Dr Riella joined the American Society of Transplantation (AST) Board of Directors in 2008 and occupied several different roles, including co-founder and executive member of the Young Faculty Community of Practice and the Basic Scientist Community of Practice, co-chair and chair of the AST Educational Committee and the AST Grants committee.

This was followed by his Nephrology Fellowship in 2009 (BWH/MGH) and Transplant Fellowship in 2010. Dr. Riella received his PhD in Transplant Immunology in 2012 from the Federal University of São Paulo, São Paulo, Brazil and the Transplant Research Center, Brigham and Women’s Hospital, Harvard Medical School. Dr. Riella joined the faculty of Harvard Medical School as an Assistant Professor of Medicine in 2013. He is now the Harold and Ellen Danser Endowed Chair in Transplantation and Associate Professor of Medicine and Surgery at Harvard Medical School.

He was later recruited to become the medical director of kidney transplantation at MGH and a senior investigator at the Center for Transplantation Sciences. Dr. Riella has over 180 publications in major journals, including New England Journal of Medicine, Circulation, Journal of Clinical Investigation, Journal of Immunology, Transplantation and American Transplant Journal. He is currently the Section Editor of the American Journal of Transplantation. He has received multiple awards, including the Young Innovator Award of the American Society of Transplantation (AST), the 2016 Basic Science Career Development Award from the AST, and the 2020 Harvard Faculty Teaching Award. He is currently funded by the NIH, Department of Defense, Industry and Philanthropy.

“We are proud to celebrate the key role of Brazilian Dr. Leonardo Riella,” the embassy of Brazil in the US posted on Twitter.

Thanks to Dr. Riella, Richard Slayman, 62, of Massachusetts – who received the world’s first successful transplant of a genetically edited pig kidney – is alive with one of the “cleanest bills of health” he’s had in a long time.

Slayman was at the end-stage of kidney disease and had depended on dialysis for years. But thanks to Dr. Riella, a transplant nephrologist who helped perform the surgery, Slayman is now home with his family and with a new lease on life.

His March 16, 2024 surgery took about four hours and was made possible after he agreed to become the first person in the world to receive a kidney from a pig, one that had been genetically edited for the human body.

The pig kidney was genetically edited using technology to remove harmful pig genes and add certain human genes to improve its compatibility with humans and eliminate any risk of infection.

“We’re going to learn a lot with Mr. Slayman. He was brave to go through a procedure where there were so many unknowns,” said Dr. Riella. “What he taught us is that it is possible.”

The groundbreaking transplant offers hope to the nearly 90,000 kidney patients on dialysis. It could mark a major milestone in the quest to provide more readily available organs to patients.

“This moment – leaving the hospital today with one of the cleanest bills of health I’ve had in a long time – is one I wished would come for many years. Now, it’s a reality and one of the happiest moments of my life,” Slayman said in a statement.

Slayman’s doctors are now working closely with the Food and Drug Administration to create a path toward clinical trials.

“And hopefully then bring it to clinical practice, bring it to all patients on the waiting list who don’t have a kidney and may have to wait too long,” said Dr. Riella, an immigrant who certainly adds to the countless immigrants across the US who help make America great every day.

Felicia J. Persaud is the publisher of NewsAmericasNow.com, a daily news outlet focusing on Black immigrant issues.

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