Organ donor spreads cancer to four recipients… yes, you can acquire cancer from diseased organs
09/23/2018 // Cassie B. // Views

Organ transplants are considered one of the greatest advances of modern medicine. It’s incredible to think that an organ that is no longer needed by one person can be placed into someone else’s body and give them a new lease on life. Of course, it’s also one of the riskiest medical procedures – and a recent case highlights one of the dangers that doesn’t tend to get a lot of attention.

When you think of the risks of an organ transplant, the first one that likely comes to mind is the possibility of the body rejecting it. Doctors do their best to minimize the chances of that, but it still happens. There are also the risks of the surgery itself to consider, which can be overwhelming to someone who already has a failing organ. However, few people consider the possibility of donor organs passing on diseases because of the extensive screening in place – but organs can and do sometimes pass diseases like cancer onto recipients.

Four patients learned this lesson the hard way after receiving organs from a 53-year-old donor who died of a stroke. Multiple tests failed to show any signs of cancer, and she wasn’t known to be suffering from any medical conditions that would preclude donation. Her lungs, liver, kidneys and heart were donated to people who needed them.

Cancer cells turned up in all the donated organs

When the woman who received the deceased person’s lungs was found to have breast cancer 16 months later, tests revealed that DNA in the cancer cells had actually come from the organ donor. Unfortunately, the cancer spread and the woman died around a year after her diagnosis.


This prompted doctors to get in touch with the other recipients. While the heart recipient had died of unrelated causes not long after getting the transplant, the others were informed of the situation. All were given tests for cancer, and all came back negative initially.

However, a few years later, doctors found breast cancer cells in the liver of the liver transplant recipient. Wary of the potential complications of another transplant, the recipient decided to keep the organ and undergo radiation treatment. She succumbed to cancer three years later.

Six years after receiving the left kidney from the donor in question, the recipient was diagnosed with breast cancer. It had already spread significantly when it was discovered, and she died two months later.

The recipient of the right kidney, a 32-year-old man, was also found to have breast cancer cells in the organ, but doctors removed the kidney and took him off the drugs that suppressed his immune system. After getting chemotherapy, he was declared cancer-free.

Doctors insist that passing cancer along through organ transplants is a very rare event, occurring at a rate of somewhere between 1 to 5 in 10,000. They point to the rigorous screening that is carried out, including multiple lab tests and family history. In the case of the donor with undetected breast cancer, she had been given a physical exam, a chest X-ray, an airway examination, and ultrasounds of her heart and abdomen.

Nevertheless, it is impossible to detect everything and a small chance remains that someone could develop cancer from a donated organ. Doctors believe the woman had micro metastases that weren’t yet big enough to show up in imaging or screening tests. Because transplant patients are given drugs that suppress their immune systems, it makes it easy for the cancer to take hold and grow unchecked.

Doctors still believe it’s a risk worth taking given the low odds, and they say the donor organ pool is already so small that there’s no need to change current procedures and introduce more possibilities for false positives.

Nevertheless, patients who are considering transplants need to be aware of the possibilities and pay close attention to their health. In a report on the case, doctors recommend removing transplants from the other patients who received organs from a donor when one of their organs is linked to cancer in a recipient.

Sources for this article include:

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