Conference Coverage

Opioid deaths boost donor heart supply



– The tragic opioid epidemic has “one small bright spot”: an expanding pool of eligible donor hearts for transplantation, Akshay S. Desai, MD, said at the annual Cardiovascular Conference at Snowmass sponsored by the American College of Cardiology.

Dr. Akshay S. Desai, a cardiologist and the director of cardiomyopathy and heart failure at Brigham and Women's Hospital, Boston Bruce Jancin/MDedge News

Dr. Akshay S. Desai

For decades, the annual volume of heart transplantations performed in the U.S. was static because of the huge mismatch between donor organ supply and demand. But heart transplant volume has increased steadily in the last few years – a result of the opioid epidemic.

Data from the U.S. Organ Procurement and Transplantation Network show that the proportion of donor hearts obtained from individuals who died from drug intoxication climbed from a mere 1.5% in 1999 to 17.6% in 2017, the most recent year for which data are available. Meanwhile, the size of the heart transplant waiting list, which rose year after year in 2009-2015, has since declined (N Engl J Med. 2019 Feb 7;380[6]:597-9).

“What’s amazing is that, even though these patients might have historically been considered high risk in general, the organs recovered from these patients – and particularly the hearts – don’t seem to be any worse in terms of allograft survival than the organs recovered from patients who died from other causes, which are the traditional sources, like blunt head trauma, gunshot wounds, or stroke, that lead to brain death. In general, these organs are useful and do quite well,” according to Dr. Desai, medical director of the cardiomyopathy and heart failure program at Brigham and Women’s Hospital, Boston.

He highlighted several other recent developments in the field of cardiac transplantation that promise to further expand the donor heart pool, including acceptance of hepatitis C–infected donors and organ donation after circulatory rather than brain death. Dr. Desai also drew attention to the unintended perverse consequences of a recent redesign of the U.S. donor heart allocation system and discussed the impressive improvement in clinical outcomes with mechanical circulatory support. He noted that, while relatively few cardiologists practice in the highly specialized centers where heart transplants take place, virtually all cardiologists are affected by advances in heart transplantation since hundreds of thousands of the estimated 7 million Americans with heart failure have advanced disease.

Heart transplantation, he emphasized, is becoming increasingly complex. Recipients are on average older, sicker, and have more comorbidities than in times past. As a result, there is greater need for dual organ transplants: heart/lung, heart/liver, or heart/kidney. Plus, more patients come to transplantation after prior cardiac surgery for implantation of a ventricular assist device, so sensitization to blood products is a growing issue. And, of course, the pool of transplant candidates has expanded.

“We’re now forced to take patients previously considered to have contraindications to transplant; for example, diabetes was a contraindication to transplant in the early years, but now it’s the rule in 35%-40% of our patients who present with advanced heart failure,” the cardiologist noted.


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