Four in U.K. develop cancer after organ transplant. Is there cause for worry?

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It’s not uncommon for infectious diseases to pass from donors to recipients during organ transplantation, but in an extraordinarily rare case, four Britons developed breast cancer years after they received organs from the same donor, despite extensive testing, according to a recent medical report.

Three of the recipients died after the cancer spread from the organs to other areas of the body. The donor, a 53-year-old woman who died of a stroke in 2007, had no known illnesses, said the case report, published in April in the American Journal of Transplantation. Tests at the time of transplantation did not detect any evidence of breast cancer. Four of her organs — kidney, lung, liver and heart — were harvested.

“No screening test is perfect. … So there is no way to eliminate the risk to zero.”

Cancer screening is important for transplant recipients, as they are at higher risk of developing and dying of cancer compared with the general population. Recipients are given immunosuppressant drugs to prevent their bodies from attacking their new organ. The downside is that damaged cells that would normally be destroyed by the immune system are allowed to live on as well.

“There is a rationale for someone having a cancer who didn’t know they had cancer being an organ donor,” Dr. Carlo Contreras, surgical oncologist and assistant professor at the University of Alabama, Birmingham, told NBC News recently.