Heart transplants from donors with hepatitis C may be safe

Jan. 10, 2020

Transplants from donors with hepatitis C may be a safe option for those awaiting new hearts – a major development in curbing the nationwide organ shortage, according to new research.

Patients who received heart transplants from donors who had hepatitis C saw similar outcomes a year after surgery as those whose donors did not have hepatitis C. Researchers compared one-year survival, organ rejection, dialysis and incidence of stroke.

The study, published in the Journal of the American Heart Association, examined 7,889 U.S. adults who received heart transplants between 2016 and 2018. Slightly more than 4 percent, or 343, received heart transplants from donors with hepatitis C.

"We are encouraged by these results and believe this is a landmark change in our ability to better meet the demand for heart transplantation by increasing the donor supply," Dr. Arman Kilic, lead study author, said in a news release. He is professor of cardiothoracic surgery at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center in Pennsylvania. "It is our hope that more centers will use hepatitis C-positive donors for heart transplantation."

Hepatitis C, though curable in most cases, can be a debilitating illness. It is a viral liver infection that spreads through contact with contaminated blood, by way of shared needles and from mother to infant during pregnancy and delivery. Because it can be treated, there has been an increase in organ donors with hepatitis C as the need for heart transplants continues to exceed the supply.

In the new study, researchers found similar survival rates regardless of whether patients received a heart from a donor with or without hepatitis C – 90 percent compared to 91 percent, respectively. There was also little difference between the two groups when comparing the rates of stroke, drug-treated organ rejection, and kidney dialysis to remove toxins from the blood.

More than 6 million people in the U.S. have heart failure and more than 900,000 new cases are diagnosed each year. It occurs when other types of heart disease weaken the heart until it is unable to pump blood effectively throughout the body. Although lifestyle changes and medications can help manage mild heart failure, severe cases may require a heart transplant.

The study did have limitations. For example, researchers did not collect information about the type of hepatitis C infection each donor had or past treatments they received. The study also did not report whether transplant recipients developed the infection.

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