Organ Donor
Organ and tissue donors are rare, which makes new screening procedures controversial. Image: Flickr / markcoggins / CC-BY-SA

It has long been known that kidney transplant recipients are at a higher risk of developing cancer. A new study by the National Institutes of Health has found that, on average, transplant recipients of many organs are twice as likely to develop cancer as the general population.

Increased risk of cancer

National Institutes of Health researchers compared national registries of transplant recipients with national registries of cancer patients. This comparison revealed that, on average, transplant recipients are at about a twofold risk of developing cancer after their transplants, about 7 percent. Patients who received transplanted organs as children or as older adults are seven times as likely to develop Non-Hodgkin lymphoma. Kidney cancer is twice as likely to happen in transplant recipients. Liver cancer and lung cancer risks are higher only in recipients of livers and lungs, respectively.

Immuno-suppression could be a factor

One leading theory is that the immuno-suppressive drugs that organ transplant patients require to prevent organ rejection lead to a higher incidence of cancer. Many of the cancers that have a higher incidence in transplant patients are viral. Immuno-suppressive drugs reduce the body’s ability to fight off viral infections, which means that cancers are much more likely to take hold and grow. Many of the cancers that transplant patients appear to be at a higher risk for are similar to the cancers that HIV-infected individuals tend to develop.

Viral screenings recommended

In the report by the National Institutes of Health, one suggested way of reducing this higher incidence of cancer is to require viral screenings before transplant surgeries. This is not a suggestion without controversy, however. Organ donations are rare. Adding an extra level of screening on the basis of a 7 percent chance of developing cancer after transplant could change how available organs are allocated, which is always difficult to manage.


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