Lungs (illustration from Gray's Anatomy)

At first, I thought this was a Monty Python sketch when I heard this story about lung transplants this morning on the BBC’s World Update:

BBC News: Smokers’ lungs given to patients

Of course, as it turns out, it’s not funny at all. There’s a shortage of organ donors, and obviously smokers’ lungs are much better than no lungs at all.

In the radio segment, Prof. John Dark, senior transplant surgeon at The Freeman Hospital in Newcastle, said that data suggest the lungs of smokers “do a little bit worse, but not much worse; perhaps five percent worse.”

Professor Dark also noted the possibility that a donor’s lungs might be harboring a very early cancer, and “If you take lungs with a cancer in them and give them to a recipient, there’s a chance the cancer may grow in the recipient. And that has happened from time to time over the years.”

Dark explained that donor lungs are screened via chest X-ray, and also that “We palpate them — we feel them very closely to make sure there are no lumps.”

The conversation was prompted by a news of a British soldier serving in Iraq, Corporal Matthew Millington, who died after being given the lungs of a heavy smoker in April 2007 at Papworth hospital, in Cambridge:

The Guardian: Soldier died after being given smoker’s lungs in transplant

According to The Guardian’s story, “Immuno-suppressive drugs prescribed at Papworth to help Millington’s body accept the lungs in fact sped up the growth of the cancer.”

U.S. residents can learn more about organ donation via the Organ and Tissue Donation Initiative.

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