4 Patients Get Cancer After Receiving Organs From Same Donor in 'Extremely Rare' Case

Four patients developed breast cancer after receiving organs from same donor.
The breast cancer developed years later, scientists found. iStock

The cancer developed several years after the organs were donated.

Four European patients developed breast cancer after receiving organs from the same donor in an "extremely rare" case, according to a new study.

The people were stricken several years after their transplants, and three of them died, according to a survey recently published in the American Journal of Transplantation.

Dr. Frederike Bemelman of the University of Amsterdam wrote the report. It was the first instance of multiple cancer development she has seen in 20 years of transplantation immunology, she said. 

Usually, problems with donated organs develop during transplant surgery, she said. Previous studies had shown other cancer development from donated organs, but this was the first time breast cancer was detected. 

The 53-year-old donor died seven years ago after suffering a stroke. The woman had no known health issues and standard screenings and ultrasounds detected no abnormalities, the study said.

The fourth recipient survived after the donated kidney was removed and immune medication to suppress rejection of the new organ was stopped. 

Bemelman said removing the donated organ is essential. "This allows the patient to stop taking immunosuppressant drugs, and the immune system can restore itself and fight against the tumor cells," she said.

A 42-year-old woman who received a lung was hospitalized 16 months after her surgery because of transplant issues, the study reported. Breast cancer cells were detected in her lymph nodes and DNA analyses showed they originated from the donor.

A 62-year-old woman who got a kidney and a 59-year-old woman who received the liver were also diagnosed with breast cancer. In all three, the cancer had metastasized, meaning tumors migrated to other areas of the body.

The report said the donor's cancer was most likely small groups of cancer cells that were too small to detect at the time of her death. 

Organ donations are prohibited from people with active cancer, except for skin carcinoma and localized tumors. The risk of transferring tumors in donated organs is between .01 percent and .05 percent, the study said.

"The advantages of organ transplantation far outweigh these small risks," Bemelman said. "People should not be worried."