Inquiry launched as transplant patients contract cancer

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Media captionRobert Law on getting cancer from a donor kidney

An investigation is under way after two transplant patients got cancer from the same donor.

The recipients were each given a kidney from a woman with a rare form of blood cancer which was not picked up in routine safety checks.

The disease was detected too late in a post-mortem examination.

NHS Blood and Transplant (NHSBT), the agency responsible for transplant safety, said research would determine the scale of the problem nationally.

'Aggressive cancer'

Rob Law, 59, and Gillian Smart, 46, both had transplants at the Royal Liverpool Hospital on 26 November 2010. The Royal Liverpool and Broadgreen University Hospitals Trust is conducting a joint investigation with NHSBT.

The donor, a 56-year-old woman, is said to have died from a brain haemorrhage.

Pathologists later discovered she suffered from intravascular B-cell lymphoma, a rare but aggressive form of cancer.

Both kidney patients are now undergoing chemotherapy.

Speaking to BBC Radio 4's File on 4, Gillian Smart said: "As a renal patient you come to terms with death very quickly. You see a lot of death while you dialyse.

"I didn't expect to have to come to terms with maybe a cancer death. It is quite a serious cancer and a hard cancer to fight."

Both patients want to know how the cancer was missed until the post-mortem and are considering legal action.

Mr Law said: "I felt I had to get to the bottom of this for the sake of anyone else in the same position, because there are 10,000 people a year who are waiting for a transplant.

"I feel they should know that any organs they get are suitable and they're not going to be infected by cancer or any other disease."

'Completely unaware'

The Royal Liverpool's medical director Dr Peter Williams said both kidneys were transplanted from the same donor, who died at another hospital.

"When the kidneys were transplanted, the surgical team were completely unaware that the donor could have cancer," he said.

"It was only days later when a post-mortem was carried out that we discovered the donor's condition.

"This is a very difficult and distressing time for Rob and Gillian, and we continue to offer full support, care and treatment to them."

NHS Blood and Transplant associate medical director Professor James Neuberger said transfer of malignancy was a very rare occurance but more organs were likely to carry diseases as donors get older. He admitted the scale of the problem was not known.

A research fellow has now been appointed to find out how often infected organs are passed on to patients.

Professor Neuberger said his first role was to try and get all the data together from transplant centres and then to work out strategies with clinicians to reduce risk.

But he added: "Transplantation isn't risk-free. These are second hand organs".

File on 4 is on BBC Radio 4 on Tuesday 22 March at 2000 GMT and Sunday 27 March at 1700 GMT. Listen again via the BBC iPlayer or download the podcast.

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