Doctors say expanding the pool of usable organs can save lives.
For example, more than 95,000 Americans are candidates for a kidney, the most common type of organ transplant, according to the U.S Department of Health and Human Services. But nearly 4,800 people died in 2014 waiting for a transplant. Thousands of others are considered too sick to get a transplant.
“Many will not live long long enough by the time their name gets to the top of the list,” said Niraj Desai, a transplant surgeon at Johns Hopkins Medicine in Baltimore. “This substantially lessens the wait time.”
With more young adults dying from heroin and fentanyl overdoses, doctors became frustrated when otherwise-healthy organs were tossed out because they were infected with hepatitis C.
Nearly 2,700 kidneys infected with the virus were thrown out between 2005 and 2014, University of Pennsylvania nephrologist Peter Reese reported in the New England Journal of Medicine.
“There are a lot of people dying of opioid overdoses who want to donate their organs,” Reese told USA TODAY.”We are burying thousands of organs that can be used for transplant.”
Doctors long avoided giving organs with hepatitis C to patients who weren’t already infected.
That’s changed in recent years. Infected organs were transplanted into nearly 500 non-infected patients in 2017, according to the United Network for Organ Sharing, a more than tenfold increase over 2015.
Why now? A handful of doctors and hospitals have grown comfortable doing these transplants because antiviral drugs can clear signs of the virus.
Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston, Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore, the University of Pennsylvania Health System in Philadelphia and Vanderbilt University Medical Center in Nashville have conducted small, preliminary studies of patients transplanted with infected kidneys, hearts and lungs.
There’s no data on patients over the long term, but doctors say larger, more robust studies are in the works.
Alexandra Glazier is CEO of New England Donor Services, which coordinates organ donation in six states.
“We’re seeing a collision of two public health crises come together,” she said. “The fact that there can be some life-saving legacy out of a pretty horrific public health crisis is a reality.”