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02 Mar 2015

Life-saving organ transplants can nevertheless leave recipients at far greater risk of developing cancer because of the effects of immune suppression medications, University of Adelaide researchers have found.

A study of kidney transplant patients has found that a third will eventually die of cancer many years after their surgery, most commonly skin cancer.

Lead researcher Dr Robert Carroll said that although there was no doubt that transplants were needed to save lives, many recipients were having their lives cut short because of the much greater risk of developing cancer.

“With as many as 800 kidney transplants being performed in Australia each year, that represents a significant cancer burden for those patients to come in the years ahead,” Dr Carroll said.

It has been established that drugs used to prevent a recipient’s body from rejecting a donated organ by suppressing the immune system also make a patient more susceptible to developing cancer.

The University of Adelaide researchers have been researching the immune systems in kidney transplant recipients to better understand the problem, and have found that a number of markers, including immune cells such as B cells and regulatory T-cells in the blood, help indicate whether a transplant patient is more likely to develop cancer.

“[Our research] may give us a method for understanding which patients are at higher risk of developing cancer, but unfortunately at this stage we have no real way of preventing those cancers from occurring,” Dr Carroll said.

The research team are now conducting further studies to see what impact reductions in the immunosuppressant drugs will have on patients.

“It’s about striking a fine balance between ensuring the new organ is not rejected, and helping to prevent cancer from developing in patients in the future,” Dr Carroll said.

The research team is supported by the Jacquot Research Establishment Award from the Royal Australasian College of Physicians and a Team Life Australia grant.


Kirsty Waterford

Published: 02 Mar 2015