US doctors announced Thursday that they had successfully performed a double lung transplant on a patient with terminal lung cancer, giving new hope to others who are also in advanced stages of the deadly disease.
Albert Khoury, a 54-year-old non-smoker, underwent a seven-hour surgery to receive his new lungs at Northwestern Medicine in Chicago on September 25, 2021.
Six months later, her lungs are working fine and she has no signs of cancer in her body.
“Lung transplantation for lung cancer is extremely rare and few cases have been reported,” Ankit Bharat, chief of thoracic surgery at Northwestern Medicine, said in a statement.
“For patients with stage 4 cancer, lung transplantation is considered a complete ‘no-no,’ but because Albert’s cancer was confined to the chest alone, we were confident we could remove all of cancer during surgery. and save his life.”
Surgeons are usually reluctant to proceed with such transplants because if even a few cancer cells remain, there is a strong chance that they will grow back in a patient taking immunosuppressive drugs to prevent organ rejection.
The few such procedures in the past have not been successful, but since then, advances have allowed doctors to better understand the spread of cancer and when an intervention might work.
Khoury, who was working as a cement finisher for the city of Chicago, began experiencing back pain, sneezing, chills, cough and runny nose in early 2020. At first, he assumed it was Covid, but called his doctor when he coughed up blood.
“They discovered stage 1 lung cancer, but due to the increase in Covid-19, I was unable to start treatment immediately,” he said in a statement.
By July 2020, her cancer (Invasive Mucinous Adenocarcinoma) had progressed to stage 2, and despite several rounds of chemotherapy, continued to grow to stage 3 and stage 4.
He was told there was no chance of survival, but his sister, who had heard of Northwestern’s pioneering lung transplants, urged him to seek another opinion.
In 2020, Bharat had performed the first double lung transplant in the US on a woman in her twenties whose lungs had been decimated by covid.
Khoury was placed under the care of oncologist Young Chae at Northwestern, who first wanted to try other cancer-fighting treatments, but his health continued to decline, leaving him in an intensive care unit with pneumonia and sepsis.
It was determined that he was, in fact, a candidate for a transplant as cancer, despite being stage 4, had not spread to other organs and he received his new lungs after a two-week wait.
The team had to remove “trillions” of cancer cells from all of his lungs within six hours, taking care not to spill material into the chest cavity or bloodstream.
“It was an exciting night,” said Bharat.
Khoury now leads a normal life and can work and go to the gym without needing respiratory support.
“My life went from zero to 100 thanks to Northwestern Medicine,” he said.
“You didn’t see this smile on my face for over a year, but now I can’t stop smiling.”
Based on the success, Bharat and Chae are developing a new set of protocols to determine who else might be eligible for such treatment.
“Now we have convinced ourselves that it is possible to offer a transplant in an oncology setting… I think it will have a bigger impact than we appreciate at the moment,” Bharat said.
Lung cancer is by far the leading cause of cancer-related deaths in the United States, accounting for nearly 25 per cent of all cancer deaths, but the number of new cases has decreased, in part because people have quit smoking.