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Photo: Kasra Koushan

Professors at Penn Medicine have found success in a new medical technique: transplanting diseased organs from deceased donors to healthy recipients, then curing the recipients of the disease. 

In 2016, Penn Med launched its first clinical trial to "test the effect of transplanting kidneys from donors with [hepatitis C virus] into patients currently on the kidney transplant waitlist who do not have the virus." 

Led by Assistant Professors of Medicine and Epidemiology in the Perelman School of Medicine David Goldberg and Peter Reese, the first trial was successful and led to the design of a new clinical trial that uses the same approach in heart transplant recipients.

During the first trial, kidneys infected with HCV were donated to transplant patients. After surgery, all 10 patients that participated in the trial tested positive for HCV. The patients were then treated with a standard 12-week course of Zepatier, a recently approved oral medication created by Merck that is prescribed to eradicate HCV. The trial was a success and all 10 transplant recipients were successfully cured of the disease.

In an interview with Time Magazine, Rhondalyn McLean, associate medical director of heart transplant at the Penn Heart and Vascular Center, said the successful use of HCV-infected kidneys "offered an opportunity to expand the donor pool."

“Now that hepatitis C is curable, we can use these organs and not worry about an increase in mortality," she said. 

According to Time, in 2016, 4,344 people joined the national heart transplant waiting list, but just 3,191 people received one. Professors say using organs infected with HCV could help close that gap.

Tom Giangiulio Jr. participated in the heart transplant trial because he had cardiomyopathy,  a condition which weakens the muscles of the heart.

"There was no fear in making this decision. It was going to save my life, and could save more lives every year," he told Time.

The researchers have noted that there is a need for longer and larger trials to continue evaluating the effectiveness in a broader population. However, if the trials continue to prove successful, it’s possible that one day, a variety of organs infected with treatable diseases could be used in transplant patients.

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