PATIENTS around the world with end stage kidney failure were given hope of a few more years of life today as surgeons at St George’s Hospital in London announced a breakthrough procedure that will allow them to continue receiving dialysis.

A metre-long plastic artery used by surgeons at the Tooting-based teaching hospital bypasses blood vessels which have been blocked by dialysis treatment. It is hoped that patients who receive the artificial artery will live for another five or six years.

The breakthrough gives hope to a group of patients once thought beyond medical help. In the past, dialysis patients with damaged blood vessels were left no other option by doctors but to die a slow and uncomfortable death.

The revolutionary use of the artery, which has so far been surgically inserted into 13 patients, has been pioneered by renal surgeon Eric Chemla, a consultant at St George’s, who describes the problem he and other doctors faced in the past:

“There used to be no hope at all for these patients – no hope whatsoever. The medical community simply gave up. Thousands of patients with kidney failure were simply doomed. They couldn’t receive dialysis and there were no transplant organs available for them either.’

During dialysis, blood is pumped from the body into a machine, where it is cleaned, and then pumped back. The treatment is the only option for patients who cannot undergo transplants, either because of complications or because no donor organs are available.

A large number of patients are connected to the dialysis machine by a venous catheter inserted into their chest, which can lead to infections and blood clots. Although a medical procedure called an angioplasty can unblock the vein affected, the operation is only a temporary solution and clots often return in less than a year.

Mr Chemla continues:

‘The artificial artery we are using has given hope to these patients. They still need a replacement kidney but at least we have given them a second chance at life – even if it’s just for a few more years.’

Mr Chemla believes the artificial artery could add five or six years to a patient’s life.

The news was welcomed by the British Kidney Patient’s Association. Speaking on behalf of the Association, Elizabeth Ward said:

‘This treatment is revolutionary. It is very exciting and we hope it will be copied at other kidney units.’

The procedure, which is expected to be copied by surgeons around the world, involves placing the artificial artery just below the skin and connecting the axillary artery in the upper part of the chest to the popliteal vein in the thigh. Although the use of grafts is a common method used to connect arteries and veins together, this is the first time that a graft has been created over such a long distance in renal medicine.

Every week over 20,000 people in the UK are forced to spend hours hooked up to dialysis machines because their kidneys no longer function properly. Experts fear that the rapid spread of diabetes and obesity could trigger a surge in the number of patients needing dialysis – as many as 80,000 by the end of the decade.