Hepatitis C not a barrier for organ transplantation, study finds

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From NPR science correspondent Richard Harris:

Donated organs from people who were infected with the hepatitis C virus can be safely transplanted, according to the latest in a line of studies that are building a case for using these organs.

Typically, these organs have been discarded because of concerns about spreading the viral infection. But a study of heart and lung transplants published Wednesday by the New England Journal of Medicine finds that new antiviral drugs are so effective that the recipients can be protected from infection.

And, as another sad result of the opioid epidemic, organs for donation increasingly carry the hepatitis C virus. People who use injected drugs and share needles are at high risk of hepatitis C infection.

These organs represent a resource the transplant surgeons at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston didn’t want to go to waste. They decided to run a study to see whether the organs could be safely transplanted.

Brigham and Women’s Dr. Ann Woolley, who organized the study, says participants didn’t get moved up on the transplant list, but by enrolling in the study they had access to a larger number of organs. Woolley says given the sad reality of the opioid epidemic, these organs have become common in the past few years.

“Over a third of all of our heart and lung transplants that we’ve done at our center have been from donors who had hepatitis C,” she says.

Woolley says the challenge hasn’t simply been medical. More than two-thirds of the donors with hepatitis C in her study were recent drug users, including people who died of overdoses. Doctors and patients raised concerns about the quality of their organs.

“I think that is a stigma that very much is widespread,” she says. “Fortunately that pendulum is beginning to swing.”

She says the organs accepted for transplant from drug users weren’t lower quality. They met the same high standards as any donation. And the outcomes she now reports are encouraging. “We’ve had a 100 percent success rate, both in terms of the hepatitis C clearance as well as how well the patient has done after transplant,” she says.

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About the Author:

Corey Bryant serves as Director of Communications for The Alliance.
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