Lungs from individuals whose cause of death is drowning or asphyxiation are usually excluded from routine donation. But a new study claims patients transplanted with lungs from such donors have similar outcomes and survival rates as patients who receive lungs from traditional donors.

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Researchers say transplanting lungs from donors who die from drowning or asphyxiation appears to be safe and could be a way of bridging the donor shortage.

The research team, led by Dr. Bryan A. Whitson from The Ohio State University Medical Wexner Center, publish their findings in The Annals of Thoracic Surgery.

Around 35 million people in the US have a lung disease, such as lung cancer, asthma and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD). While many of these illnesses can be treated with medication, some patients with chronic lung disease rely on lung transplantation to survive.

However, there is a severe shortage of donor organs. According to the United Network for Organ Sharing (UNOS), there are currently 1,684 individuals in the US waiting for a lung transplant, but only 910 donor lungs have been recovered so far this year.

As a result of this shortage, researchers have been looking at the effects of using organs from donors that are usually deemed ineligible for routine donation due to concerns about potential organ damage. Earlier this year, for example, Medical News Today reported on a study claiming donor lungs from heavy smokers are safe for transplantation.

In this latest study, researchers assessed the UNOS Standard Transplant Analysis and Research Registry between 1987 and 2010, and identified 309 patients who were transplanted with lungs from deceased donors whose cause of death was asphyxiation (death from lack of oxygen) or drowning.

The outcomes of these patients were then compared with those of patients who received lungs from traditional donors. Overall, Dr. Whitson and his team analyzed the outcomes of 18,250 adult primary lung transplants.

They found that survival rates between the two groups were the same, as were the rates of treatment for organ rejection and the risks of post-transplant dialysis and post-transplant stroke.

The team notes that the length of hospital stay was slightly longer for patients who received organs from those who died from asphyxiation or drowning.

These findings, Dr. Whitson says, indicate that an organ donor’s cause of death should not automatically dictate whether their organs are suitable for transplantation.

“The conventional criteria for organ quality and function need to be met, of course, but this adds a potential increase in the donor pool,” he says, adding:

Individual transplant centers evaluate donors on a case-by-case basis and assess the risk and make the best match of donor and recipient. Based on our results, it appears that if centers wanted to expand their individual criteria for donation, they could successfully expand their donor pool.

Questions around these types of donors or even marginal lungs will be assessed by ex-vivo perfusion [therapy applied to donor lungs outside of the body before transplant that improves organ quality and makes lungs safe for transplant], and we should see an increase in the number of transplants overall.”

In a recent spotlight feature, MNT discussed whether animal organs should be farmed for human transplants as a way of dealing with shortages of human organs.