Heart transplant boosts cancer risk

July 6, 2011

New research suggests that heart transplant patients are four to 30 times as likely to develop skin cancer as healthy people, depending on their geographic location and other factors, the Los Angeles Times reports.

Chicago - New research suggests that heart transplant patients are four to 30 times as likely to develop skin cancer as healthy people, depending on their geographic location and other factors, the Los Angeles Times reports.

Patients who live nearer the equator and have fairer skin are the most likely to suffer skin cancers and to die from them, researchers found.

A study led by Northwestern University dermatologist Murad Alam, M.D., analyzed records of 6,271 heart transplant patients who underwent surgery between 1990 and 2003 at 32 U.S. centers. The group represented about a quarter of the nearly 25,000 heart transplants performed during those years. Investigators identified 228 cases of basal cell carcinoma (3.6 percent of the patients studied), 289 cases of squamous cell carcinoma (4.6 percent), 22 cases of melanoma (0.003 percent) and six cases of other skin cancers (0.001 percent).

The study found that white patients were the most susceptible to tumors. After 10 years, 83 percent of white patients were free of skin cancer, compared with 99.2 percent of other patients. Other findings:

• Older recipients - age 60 and over - were 7.6 times as likely as others to develop skin cancer.
• Patients in Southern states had a 20 percent increased risk of developing skin cancer.
• Patients with a history of skin cancer before their transplants had double the risk of developing skin cancer.
• Transplant recipients who developed melanoma were six times as likely to die from it as were otherwise healthy people.

The study notes that transplant patients have an above-normal risk of developing cancer due to their need to take immunosuppressive drugs, which can also allow a small tumor to flourish. According to the Times report, National Institutes of Health statistics show that cancers - primarily of the skin and lymph system - account for about a quarter of all heart transplant deaths in the three years after surgery. Why such patients seem particularly susceptible to skin cancer is still unknown.

The study appeared in the American Journal of Transplantation.