Lungs Of Pack-A-Day Smokers Fit To Transplant [Study]

Megan Charles

Lungs taken from people who have habitually huffed and puffed a pack-a-day cigarette habit for more than 20 years are functional enough for transplantation.

With overcrowded transplant waiting lists, some patients desperately requiring an organ would take a set of smokers' lungs given the alternative. The average wait time for an available organ can be over a year. For some, it's just too long.

A new study supports lungs from a smoker is perfectly acceptable for transplantation. Dr. Sharven Taghavi, a cardiovascular surgical resident at Temple University Hospital in Philadelphia, led the research study. It was presented to the Society of Thoracic Surgeons as a potential solution. There is an urgent need to expand viable donor organ options.

Medical records in the United Network for Organ Sharing (UNOS) were analyzed. UNOS is a private, non-profit organization responsible for managing the nation's organ transplant system under contract with the federal government. The records were specifically of 5,900 double-lung transplant procedures performed between 2005 and 2011.

Donor guidelines set by the International Society for Heart & Lung Transplantation typically exclude smokers, but, under certain circumstances, the habit can be overlooked. Nearly 13 percent of double-lung transplants in the US came from donors with a heavy smoking history in Taghavi's study. So long as the donor is healthy --- absent of diseases like emphysema, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), and lung cancer --- the organ is fit to transplant.

According to Dr. Ramsey Hachem, a pulmonologist at Barnes-Jewish Hospital in St. Louis, only about 20 percent of smokers actually develop the worst effects of smoking. Take into account there are nearly 50 million people who smoke annually, and it is still one of the top preventable death-causing habits. Smoking claims over 393,000 American lives each year. However, access to the additional less than desirable smoker lungs would reduce the wait time for patients in need.

Lung transplants are performed on people who are likely to die from lung disease within one to two years, according to the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute (NHLBI). A lung transplant is considered a last-resort treatment for lung failure. The procedure may be recommended for patients under age 65 who have severe lung disease, a congenital defect, or an injury to one or both lungs. Both single and double-lung transplants are lengthy surgeries, lasting anywhere from four to 12 hours. Double-lung transplants currently outnumber single-lung transplants.

Along with limited availability effecting patient treatment, the donor tissue must be compatible to the recipient tissue type in order to reduce the odds of transplant rejection.

Although the number on the waiting list varies, only half will receive a transplant in a given year.

Would you care if the lungs you were receiving were from a heavy smoker?

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