Organ Transplant Meds Increase Cancer Risks

Skin cancer is common in organ transplant patients due to immunosuppressant medications

/ Author:  / Reviewed by: Chris Galloway, M.D.

(RxWiki News) The last thing an organ transplant patient needs to worry about is skin cancer. But nearly half of these patients wind up with skin cancer because of the medications they take to ensure their bodies don’t reject the new organ.

A recent study found that organ transplant recipients were 10 to 100 times more likely than the general population to develop skin cancer. The medications taken before and after surgery were responsible for the increased risks, according to the study.

"Talk to your doctor about skin cancer risks."

Steven R. Feldman, MD, PhD, professor in the Center for Dermatology Research at Wake Forest University in Winston-Salem, NC, worked with a team of colleagues to review skin cancer risks in people receiving organ transplants.

Before and after organ transplant, patients are often given immunosuppressant medications to help the body accept—and not reject—the new organ.

The authors discovered that lung, heart and double organ transplant patients were at particularly high risk for developing skin cancer from taking immunosuppressant medications.

The study found that nearly 44 percent of organ transplant patients developed skin cancers that are typically more aggressive than those in the regular population.

For this study, researchers searched the PubMed database for studies from 2006 to 2010 reporting on skin cancers in organ transplant patients. A total of 36 studies were found that discussed melanoma, non-melanoma skin cancer (basal and squamous cell carcinomas), Merkel cell carcinoma and Kaposi’s sarcoma.

Basal and squamous cell carcinomas—the most common forms of skin cancer—were responsible for 90 percent of all skin cancers reported in organ transplant patients. These two non-melanoma skin cancers were found to be responsible for 5 to 8 percent of organ transplant patient deaths.

Basal cell carcinoma risk was 10 times higher and squamous cell carcinoma risk was 100 times higher in organ transplant patients than in the general population.

Risk factors associated with developing skin cancer were:

  • Being male
  • Older age
  • Sun exposure
  • Fair Skin
  • Longer time spent on immunosuppressant medications
  • Having been infected with the human papillomavirus (HPV), a sexually transmitted infection, at some point earlier in life

Authors said developing skin cancer after undergoing an organ transplant could cause anxiety and lower quality of life in patients.

The researchers recommended healthcare professionals talk to patients about ways to lower risk of skin cancer as soon as they begin immunosuppressant medications. The authors also recommended organ recipients get regular skin cancer check-ups as part of pre- and post-operative care. 

Authors noted that ultraviolet sunlight, which is a risk factor for skin cancer, is also an important source of vitamin D. They recommended healthcare providers monitor for vitamin D deficiencies in the event patients are avoiding sunlight.

This study was published in November 2012 in Dermatologic Surgery.

Galderma Laboratories, L.P. provided funding to support this study. While Dr. Feldman has received speaking, research and consulting fees from various pharmaceutical companies, no conflicts of interest regarding this study were found.

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Review Date: 
February 6, 2013
Last Updated:
February 8, 2013