Background: Liver disease is a frequent and major complication after organ transplantation. We sought to determine whether hepatitis C virus (HCV) is transmitted by organ transplantation and whether it causes post-transplantation liver disease.
Methods: Serum samples from all cadaver organ donors to the New England Organ Bank between 1986 and 1990 were screened retrospectively for antibodies to HCV (anti-HCV) by enzyme-linked immunosorbent assay (ELISA). We reviewed the hospital records of all recipients of organs from anti-HCV-positive donors for evidence of liver disease. Serum samples from recipients obtained before transplantation and during follow-up were analyzed for anti-HCV.
Results: Of 716 organ donors, 13 (1.8 percent) were positive for anti-HCV. Their organs (19 kidneys, 6 hearts, and 4 livers) went to 29 recipients. Non-A, non-B hepatitis developed after transplantation in 14 of the 29 (48 percent), for a prevalence 7.4 times the 6.5 percent prevalence after transplantation from untested donors that was previously reported by two institutions in the organ bank (P less than 0.0001). The liver disease began a mean of 3.8 months after transplantation and became chronic in 12 patients; the other 2 had subfulminant hepatic failure. Liver disease was more frequent in the patients who had received antilymphocyte preparations (P = 0.04). HCV was the cause of the post-transplantation liver disease in 12 of the 13 recipients (92 percent) for whom serum samples were available. Anti-HCV was detected by ELISA in eight and enzyme immunoassay in one; in three others, HCV RNA was detected by polymerase chain reaction in serum samples obtained after transplantation.
Conclusions: Organ transplantation can transmit hepatitis C. This raises serious questions about the continued acceptance of organs from donors positive for anti-HCV.