Fatal drug overdoses and increased organ donations: What research has found

WASHINGTON — The loss of life from drug overdoses, particularly with the opioid crisis, may have contributed to an increase in organ donations, according to recently published medical research.

Organ donation for transplantation from people who died from drug intoxication increased more than tenfold between 2000 and 2016, according to research published in the The New England Journal of Medicine.

The increase has occurred “predominantly in the last four or five years,” said Mandeep R. Mehra, M.D., medical director of the Heart and Vascular Center at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston. Investigators at University of Utah Health also worked on the study.

Some doctors and people who need transplants are skeptical of the viability of the organs because of their source. But the study found that with heart and lung transplants, which are more sensitive to oxygen loss that can occur during overdoses, outcomes are very similar to other organ donor sources.

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Though fatal drug overdoses have increased in the past few years in many U.S. states, Mehra called the increase in organ donations a silver lining, especially since “the need for organ donation has never been greater.”

And with an increased need among an aging population, Mehra added, “Our community has to continue efforts and research in not only increasing organ donor awareness but to start looking at hearts and lungs and kidneys we would otherwise leave on the table.”

Other potential organ sources Mehra thinks should be examined are from older donors, animals and 3D printing. He points out that 3D printing already is working to create the trachea and urethra.

Efforts to stop humans from rejecting pig organs and to stop the transmission of animal infections to humans is progressing. “Such research is slowly but surely reaching a stage where it may become a clinical reality in three to five years,” Mehra said.

The study published Wednesday also examined whether there has been a corresponding increase in drug overdose organ donations in Europe and found none.

Investigators believe that suggests that governmental policy changes in the U.S. could work to slow the opioid epidemic here.

“Most European countries restrict the use of these drugs enormously, only toward the end of life in many cases, rather than for the casual treatment of pain syndromes — unlike the United States, where the medical prescription of opioids is quite ubiquitous and easier. So, we can learn a lot in terms of health policy from these findings,” Mehra said.

Kristi King

Kristi King is a veteran reporter who has been working in the WTOP newsroom since 1990. She covers everything from breaking news to consumer concerns and the latest medical developments.

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