WASHINGTON, March 18 (UPI) -- Doctors at two universities will start transplanting kidneys this spring from donors with hepatitis C to recipients who do not have the infection, a break with 25 years of medical practice.
Researchers and doctors at the Johns Hopkins University and the University of Pennsylvania say older patients, who are more likely to die of something unrelated to their kidney, can benefit from the organs -- even if they contract the infection.
Patients involved in the trial will receive kidneys from deceased donors with hepatitis C and 12 weeks of treatment with the drug Zepatier, which Merck is providing for free in both trials, in addition to funding other parts of the research.
With about 100,000 people on the waiting list for a kidney, the potential to help people is real. A 2015 study at the University of Pennsylvania showed that newer hepatitis C drugs have a 95 percent efficacy rate, and the currently unused organs could save as many as 400 patients per year.
"Initially, we're targeting the population that has the highest mortality risk while waiting for a transplant," Dr. Christine Durand, an infectious disease specialist at Johns Hopkins University, told STAT.
About 5 percent of people on the waiting list for a kidney die each year, with mortality rates increasing for people over 60 and diabetics. Doctors said patients in these groups, undergoing regular dialysis, which carries other health risks, would benefit from taking the hepatitis C risk.
Hepatitis C is a liver disease that can either be acute or chronic, though the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports 70 percent to 80 percent of people do not have symptoms. Among people infected with the disease, many eventually develop chronic liver disease or cirrhosis over a period of decades, with some dying from either cirrhosis or liver cancer.
Doctors in the trials say these risks are less concerning among older patients with other conditions they are targeting. They also point to the efficacy of new drugs, like the one being provided by Merck, that are expected to keep infection down among kidney recipients.
"If it was me who needed a kidney," Durand said, "I would sign up for this."