How is the first transplant patient of a hepatitis C-infected heart doing?
By the time three transplant physicians approached Tom Giangiulio Jr. about being the first patient in a new clinical trial to accept a heart from a Hepatitis C-positive donor, Giangiulio didn’t have much of a choice.
He had already been on the heart transplant waitlist for more than two years, he was a live-in at the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania and he had a body size (6-foot-2, 220 pounds) and blood type (O-positive) that was difficult to match to a donor.
It took Giangiulio less than 24 hours to speak to his previous cardiologist and his family and decide to enroll in the program. The doctors at Penn explained to him that because of new medications that can cure Hepatitis C, they were confident the virus could be eradicated post-transplant.
“There was no hesitation at all, not with me,” said Carin Giangiulio, Tom’s wife of 33 years. “Because I knew what the alternative was and we didn’t have too much choice except for going on a VAD (ventricular assist device) … and he didn’t want to do that. I said, ‘If they have a cure, then it’s a no-brainer. Let’s just do it.’ And I’m glad we did because I don’t think he would’ve been here today.”
Tom, 59, is set to celebrate his second anniversary with his new heart in June. He received the heart the day after Father’s Day in 2017 and subsequently contracted Hepatitis C, which was promptly wiped out with a 12-week regimen of elbasvir/grazoprevir (Zepatier).
Some of Giangiulio’s doctors at Penn published in February their experience with the first 10 patients in the clinical trial, called USHER, in the American Journal of Transplantation. All nine patients who survived were cured of Hepatitis C thanks to the antiviral therapy.
The implications of the research are massive, said Rhondalyn McLean, MD, MHS, the medical director of Penn’s heart transplant program and lead author of the recently published study. For the past two decades, the U.S. has struggled to increase the number of heart transplants above about 3,000 per year. And every year, patients die waiting for a heart transplant or become too sick to handle a transplant surgery.
McLean estimated 700 hearts from donors with Hepatitis C are discarded each year in the U.S. If even half of those are suitable for transplant, it would increase by 10 percent the number of organs that are available for implantation.
“There are so many people who have end-stage heart failure who die waiting for transplant, so anytime that we can increase our access to organs then I think we’re all going to be happy about that,” McLean said. “I think the people believe in the medicine, they believe that Hepatitis C is curable, so the risk to these folks is low. With the results of the study, I think we’ve proven that we can do this safely and the medications have great efficacy.”
Transplanting Hepatitis C-positive hearts isn’t a new idea, McLean explained.
“We used to do this all the time (with) the thinking that Hepatitis C usually doesn’t cause a problem for many, many years, so if hearts are only going to last 13 years or so and Hepatitis C doesn’t usually cause a problem for 30 years in someone, it should be an OK thing to do,” she said.
|Read on: ‘Patient No. 1’ from a Hep C heart transplant study shares his story|