Using lung transplants from heavy smokers may sound like a cruel joke, but a new study finds that organs taken from people who puffed a pack a day for more than 20 years are likely safe.
What's more, the analysis of lung transplant data from the U.S. between 2005 and 2011 confirms what transplant experts say they already know: For some patients on a crowded organ waiting list, lungs from smokers are better than none.
"I think people are grateful just to have a shot at getting lungs," said Dr. Sharven Taghavi, a cardiovascular surgical resident at Temple University Hospital in Philadelphia, who led the new study.
Surprisingly, however, organ recipients who do get smokers' lungs often learn about it only afterward -- if at all, experts say.
"If someone had a transplant and after the transplant they say, 'What can you tell me about the donor?' there are a limited number of characteristics we can tell them," said Dr. Ramsey Hachem, a pulmonologist and transplant surgeon at Barnes-Jewish Hospital in St. Louis. "We don't do that routinely before."
About 13 percent of double-lung transplants in the U.S. came from donors with a heavy smoking history, according to Taghavi's new study, presented Tuesday at the annual meeting of the Society of Thoracic Surgeons. He and his colleagues analyzed records of some 5,900 adult procedures in the database maintained by the United Network for Organ Sharing, or UNOS, which manages transplants in the U.S.
Typically, that meant smoking at least a pack of cigarettes a day for more than 20 years, or two packs a day for 10 years.
In the end, after all other variables were accounted for, people who got lungs from heavy smokers lived as long and as well as those who got lungs from the tobacco-free, Taghavi found. There was no significant difference in cancers, though the study didn't specifically look at lung cancer.
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