Asia & Pacific

Japanese Doctors Perform World’s First Living Donor Lung Transplant in COVID-19 Patient

Since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, researchers have determined that the respiratory illness causes severe lung damage, with some patients even undergoing lung transplants as part of their recovery. A January study found that more than 1,700 patients from Wuhan, China, were found to have evidence of lung damage months after their infection.

Doctors in Japan have performed what they say is the world’s first lung transplant from living donors to a COVID-19 patient, Dr. Hiroshi Date, the director of the Department of Respiratory Surgery at Kyoto University Hospital, revealed at a Thursday news conference. 

The Wednesday transplant operation was performed by a team of 30 doctors and took around 11 hours to perform. The unnamed patient, identified only as a woman from Japan’s Kansai region, received part of healthy lungs from her husband and son.

The woman, who was admitted to Kyoto University Hospital on Monday, had been connected to an extracorporeal membrane oxygenation (ECMO) device to replace her failing lungs upon developing pneumonia after contracting the novel coronavirus.​

Transplants are usually done from brain-dead donors as is commonly performed in China, US and Europe, however, it is still considered rare to do so in Japan. According to the hospital statement, the waiting period for such transplants can take as long as two and a half years in Japan, and live donors are considered a better option.  

Last month, US surgeons completed a “Covid to Covid” double-lung transplant by using lungs from a donor who had recovered from COVID-19 but later died from other causes. The lungs were subsequently transplanted to a 60-year-old patient whose lungs were also damaged by the disease. Earlier, US surgeons successfully performed a double-lung transplant operation on a COVID-19 patient, which is believed to be the first of its kind in the nation.

Typically, there are restrictions on who can undergo the specified transplant, with medical professionals taking into consideration a patient’s age and physical condition. The operation is usually limited to people with serious lung diseases who meet certain criteria, such as cystic and pulmonary fibrosis. 

Though the unidentified Japanese patient had no pre-existing medical conditions, her respiratory function deteriorated rapidly after being infected with SARS-CoV-2, the deadly virus that causes COVID-19.

The hospital later determined that the woman had no hope of recovery, and only a lung transplant could save her life. Her husband and son both offered to donate, despite knowing the risks of decreased lung capacity for their own bodies.

In reference to future performances of procedures like this, Date stated that he believes “there is hope for this treatment in the sense that it creates a new option” for patients.

The patient remains in the intensive care unit at Kyoto University Hospital, but is expected to be discharged sometime over the next two or three months, if all goes well. As for the son and husband, both are in stable condition, and have both expressed gratitude and joy over the successful surgery, according to the hospital.

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