Lung transplantation for primary bronchogenic cancer could lead to increased survival and improved quality of life for patients who have malignant disease, for which other therapies might be inappropriate. This Review examines the development of experience and outcomes for this indication and explores the limitations that are inherent in lung transplantation for malignant disease. Bronchogenic malignancy is a rare indication for lung transplantation constituting only 0·13% of all lung transplants in the USA from 1987 to 2010 and is only indicated for early-stage disease when conventional surgical techniques are contraindicated by poor lung function in which an unacceptably high risk of short-term mortality is expected. Outcomes can be extrapolated from the experience of finding an unexpected malignancy in an explanted lung for which approximately 30% of recipients, dependent on stage, succumb from distant metastatic disease in the first few years after transplant, after which long-term survival is similar to transplantation for other conditions. Care must be taken for lung transplantation for multifocal bronchoalveolar cell carcinoma to ensure that the donor lung is not contaminated with residual bronchoalveolar cell carcinoma cells in the upper airways during surgical implantation. The rarity of lung transplantation for cancer, and the absence of head-to-head trials comparing lung transplantation with conventional cancer care, limit the conclusions that can be drawn about lung transplantation for this indication. Furthermore, the ethical balance of how to allocate a scarce resource, such as a donor lung, remains an unresolved dilemma given the uncertainties regarding long-term survival. Conversely, individual patients might have substantial increases in survival and quality of life equivalent or superior to conventional cancer treatment methods.
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