Double-lung transplant saves Chicago man with terminal lung cancer

Lung transplant recipient Albert Khoury (R) speaks with surgeon Ankit Bharat six months after his procedure. Photo courtesy of Northwestern Medicine
1 of 3 | Lung transplant recipient Albert Khoury (R) speaks with surgeon Ankit Bharat six months after his procedure. Photo courtesy of Northwestern Medicine

March 24 (UPI) -- In what may be a first in the United States, surgeons at Northwestern Medicine in Chicago performed a successful double-lung transplant on a patient with terminal lung cancer, the hospital announced Thursday.

The patient, 54-year-old Albert Khoury, of Chicago, is a non-smoker who was diagnosed with lung cancer at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, hospital officials said.


Now, six months after his transplant, Khoury's new lungs are working well, and he has no signs of cancer left in his body, they said.

"Lung transplantation for lung cancer is extremely uncommon with few cases reported," Dr. Ankit Bharat, one of the surgeons who performed the procedure, said in a press release.

"For patients with stage 4 cancer, lung transplantation is considered a complete 'no-no,' but because Albert's cancer was confined only to his chest, we were confident we could clear all the cancer during surgery and save his life," said Bharat, who is chief of thoracic surgery at Northwestern Medicine.


Nearly 250,000 people in the United States are diagnosed with lung cancer annually, and more than 130,000 die from the disease each year, the American Cancer Society estimates.

Lung cancer is the leading cause of cancer-related deaths in the United States, making up almost 25% of such deaths, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Although lung transplants have become more common in people with the deadly form of cancer, historically they have been reserved for those who do not have advanced or stage 4 disease, where tumors have spread to both lungs or other organs in the body, the society says.

Khoury, who had been working as a cement finisher for the Chicago Department of Transportation, first developed back pain, sneezing, chills and a cough with mucus in early 2020, he said in a press release.

Initially, he thought it was COVID-19, but then he started coughing up blood and called his primary care doctor, he said.

When he visited the doctor, it was discovered that he had stage 1 lung cancer, but due to the COVID-19 pandemic, he was unable to begin treatment right away, according to Khoury.

Within a few months, his cancer progressed to stage 4 and doctors at other health systems told him there was no chance for survival, Khoury said.


"But then my sister saw a news story about lung transplants being pioneered for COVID-19 patients at Northwestern Medicine and encouraged me to make an appointment to see if lung transplantation could be an option," he said.

Khoury met with Dr. Young Chae, a medical oncologist with Lurie Cancer Center at Northwestern Medicine, who wanted to try other treatment options before considering lung transplantation.

However, Khoury's health continued to decline, and he ended up in the intensive care unit on a ventilator with pneumonia and sepsis, hospital officials said.

"Both of Albert's lungs were filled with cancer, and day by day his oxygen saturation was dropping," Chae said in a press release.

"I left his hospital room and thought to myself, 'Could a lung transplant really be an option?,'" he said.

After consulting with Bharat, the team did a transplant evaluation and found Khoury to be eligible for the procedure because his tumor was localized to the chest completely encasing both his lungs but had not yet spread to other parts of his body, which is rare in stage 4 disease, Chae said.

Khoury received his new lungs Sept. 25, and six months after the procedure, he no longer requires oxygen support to breath and "leading a normal life," according to Chae.


"My life went from zero to 100 -- you didn't see this smile on my face for over a year, but now I can't stop smiling," Khoury added.

Due to the success of the transplant, Bharat and Chae are developing a new set of protocols for treating lung cancer patients at Northwestern Medicine, and they're currently in the process of starting a clinical registry to track the progress of such patients over time, they said.

"One of the biggest fears of performing a transplant on anyone who has cancer is the risk of recurrence after the transplant," Bharat said.

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