Livers Donated After Cardiac Death Are Safe to Use in Liver Cancer Patients


Key Points

  • Patients with liver cancer undergoing liver transplant have similar beneficial outcomes whether organs are from donors suffering cardiac death or brain death.
  • Researchers estimate using livers from donors following a cardiac death for transplants could increase the number of liver transplants performed by 10% to 15% nationwide.

In the largest study of its kind, transplant physicians at Mayo Clinic in Florida have found that liver cancer patients have similar beneficial outcomes whether using organs donated by patients after cardiac death or brain death. The study was recently published by Croome et al in the American Journal of Transplantation.

“Our program has one of the largest experiences in the world with liver transplants using donations after cardiac death,” said the study's lead investigator, transplant surgeon Kristopher P. Croome, MD. “We now know that these organs effectively offer new life for patients with liver cancer.”

He continued, “I believe this study firmly and finally answers the question as to whether liver donations after cardiac death are as viable for patients with liver cancer as livers from donors who die from brain death. They are.”

Growing Need, Larger Resource

Most transplant centers predominantly use livers from brain dead donors. Using organs after cardiac death for liver transplants could increase the number of liver transplants performed by 10% to 15% nationwide, Dr. Croome said. “Nationwide, over the past decade, the transplant list and the number of liver cancer patients have increased.”

Some studies, including both human and animal investigations, have suggested that donations after cardiac death have inferior results in patients with liver cancer because the liver has suffered damage due to loss of oxygen during organ recovery.

For the purposes of transplantations, a person who dies from a heart attack is not considered for donation. Instead, cardiac death is controlled in a patient who will donate organs. “This can occur, for example, in a patient who has had a bad brain injury and will not recover. In this controlled setting, with the purpose of donating organs, a patient is taken off life support, and will pass into death. Then after a short time period, the organs will be recovered and donated,” said Dr. Croome.

“Some ischemia will occur in the organs during this procedure. The concern has been that these livers may not be healthy enough to fight off development of new cancer,” he said. “There may be circulating tumor cells in a patient whose cancerous liver is removed at the time of transplant, so the question had been whether these livers donated from cardiac death donors are as healthy and resilient as those obtained after brain death.”

Donations after brain death occur in patients with absence of brain activity but whose heart and other organs are still active. 

Study Details

Between 2003 and 2012, the team from the Department of Transplantation at Mayo Clinic in Florida transplanted 1,633 livers using donor brain death organs, and 241 livers obtained from donors after cardiac death.

In this study, the investigators identified 397 liver cancer patients who received a new liver—340 who received a liver after brain death and 57 whose organ was donated after cardiac death. They found no difference in liver cancer recurrence between the two groups. Liver cancer recurred in about 12% of patients in both groups.

“The gap between patients who need a new liver and the number of organs available has been widening, but the use of donations after cardiac death could potentially alleviate some of the organ shortage,” Dr. Croome concluded.

Dr. Croome is the corresponding author for the American Journal of Transplantation article.

The content in this post has not been reviewed by the American Society of Clinical Oncology, Inc. (ASCO®) and does not necessarily reflect the ideas and opinions of ASCO®.