Doctors working on using infected hearts for successful transplants

Author: Amy Oshier Writer: Joey Pellegrino
Published: Updated:

More than 3,500 people are currently waiting for a heart transplant. Many of them will wait longer than six months, and some will die while on the list. But doctors are now using less-than-perfect donor hearts to give people a second chance at living.

It was just another day of hiking when Jacob May had the wind knocked out of him.

“It took me twice as long to get back to the truck,” May said. “I was completely short of breath.”

May had beaten leukemia more than a decade ago and was told the chemotherapy could one day cause heart problems. Diagnosed with congestive heart failure, the 46-year-old needed a heart transplant.

“It came on very suddenly,” May said. “They told me it could be years [of] wait time, [or] it could be a couple of weeks.”

“There’s a big gap between the number of patients that are awaiting organs and then the number of organs available every year for transplantation,” said Dr. Joseph Stehlik, transplant cardiologist with University of Utah Health. (:10)

But innovative approaches in heart transplantation gave May more options. Doctors at the University of Utah are now using hearts that would not have been acceptable a few years ago for transplantation, including hearts that are infected with hepatitis C.

“There have been new medications developed that are curative for hepatitis C, so, antiviral medications that will eliminate the virus,” Stehlik said.

Even if the donor has not received treatment for hepatitis C before death, Stehlik says they can transplant the organ.

“While the virus will be transmitted to the recipient, we’ll provide treatment for hepatitis C and eliminate the virus fully within the first weeks after heart or other solid organ transplantation,” Stehlik said

May waited 111 days before he was matched with a heart infected with hepatitis C.

“We figured the risk was worth taking to give me a new lease because there was no telling how long the old one was gonna hang out for me,” May said.

And so far, May has tested negative for hepatitis C and will continue to be tested for it. But he says it’s a risk worth taking.

“I’ve got a total of six kids altogether, so, it’s gonna give me a chance to spend time with my family,” May said.

Stehlik says using hearts infected with hepatitis C for transplants can add an additional 200 transplants in the U.S. alone. Although hepatitis C is in the first infected hearts being used for transplantation, Stehlik believes that in the future even HIV-infected hearts may also be viable for transplantation.

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