Transplants and cancer

I am now watching Heartland on TNT and the episode’s premise is that the donor of transplanted organs had cancer, therefore the transplant recipients will have cancer.

Is this medically possible? Can you “catch” cancer like this?

It’s possible but rather unlikely. What is more plausible is that part of the post-transplant protocol is long-term immuno-supression, which can let some cancers through that otherwise may have been nicked early on by a fully-functioning immune system.

A freakier example, though currently only known in dogs and tasmanian devils: Cancer that infects new hosts through touching

It happens. “Transmission of cancer from cadaveric donors is a risk of transplantation and carries a high mortality rate.” (From here.) The mitigating factor is that the organs most commonly transplanted will only rarely be cancerous, particularly in the younger, healthier donors who are the most viable source of organs.

Indeed, the same abstract states, “During a mean follow-up of 45 months (range 30-61 months), no recipients of organs from donors with a history of cancer developed a donor derived cancer”.

To build on this, is your risk of cancer increased as a recipient of a donation if that person has cancer in their family? For example, if I receive a lung and it is currently healthy, but the donor’s family has a history of lung cancer (don’t know if that cancer has any genetic link, but substitute any organ here) are my chances now increased? Or is it more to do with my own immune system and not the organ itself?

Well, you’re right, but in my defense, the same cite also says, “Twenty-eight recipients of PHC [past history of cancer] donor organs developed posttransplantation tumors (18 skin, 2 PTLD, 8 solid cancers).” It’s clear on rereading that those posttransplantation tumors weren’t attributable to the transplant.

But not to say it can’t happen, though it’s rare. Here’s another cite.