Research Finds Organs from Drug-Overdose Deaths Suitable for Transplants


Transplant patients who received organs from donors who died from drug intoxication had similar survival compared with other transplant patients.

Deaths related to the opioid epidemic have increased the number of organs available for transplantation but concerns about the suitability of these organs persist. In a new study, researchers sought to evaluate the risk of organs from drug intoxication deaths in transplant recipients to determine whether these organs are suitable for transplantation.

In the study, which was published in the New England Journal of Medicine, the researchers found a more than 10-fold increase in the proportion of donors who died from drug intoxication between 2000 and 2016 in the United States.

“In the unfortunate circumstances where opioid deaths happen, organ donation can extend life of many patients in need of transplant,” Josef Stehlik, MD, MPH, medical director of the Heart Transplant Program at the University of Utah Health, said in a press release. “Yet, these organs are often not considered suitable for organ donation.”

Clinicians may overlook organs from drug intoxication deaths for procurement due to concern about irreversible organ damage from overdose death. The researchers, however, indicated that transplant patients who received these organs had similar survival as other transplant patients.

The researchers looked at the survival rate of 2360 patients 1 year after receiving a heart or lung transplant from donors who died from drug intoxication compared with recipients of organs from donors who died from other causes. After examining 17 years of transplantation records, no significant change in the recipients’ chance of survival was found when the organ came from victims of drug intoxication.

“I feel hopeful that doctors across the country will read this and feel confident that organs that pass the required tests are safe for transplant,” Dr Stehlik said in the press release. “This awareness is especially important when organ procurement professionals have to decide on use of potential donors with this high-risk history.”

The results can also better inform transplant patients in their decision on whether to accept these donations, the researchers noted.

“We must look to new ways to increase organ donor recovery by concentrating on greater use of marginal organs or by expanding the suitable donor pool by using new technologies to improve organ function before the transplant takes place,” Mandeep R Mehra, MD, medical director of the Heart and Vascular Center at Brigham and Women’s Hospital, said in the press release.


Mehra MR, Cherikh W, Stehlik J, et al. The drug-intoxication epidemic and solid-organ transplantation. NEJM. 2018. Doi: 10.1056/NEJMc1802706

The Opioid Epidemic Has Boosted the Number of Organs Available for Transplant [news release]. Health University of Utah website. Accessed May 17, 2018.

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