Cystic fibrosis (CF) is a serious and debilitating genetic disease. In years past, a cystic fibrosis diagnosis meant a short life expectancy. New medical advances have given people with CF a better prognosis and additional treatment options, such as lung transplantation.
But what exactly is a lung transplant for cystic fibrosis? Who is a candidate? How does it improve a person’s health, and can you cure cystic fibrosis with a lung transplant?
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Is a Lung Transplant an Option?
Cystic fibrosis can affect many areas of the body, including the pancreas and liver, but generally, CF most severely affects the lungs, according to the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation. CF can cause your body to secrete a thick, glue-like substance in your lungs, pancreas, and liver.
Having damaged lungs hinders your ability to breathe, your quality of life, and your life expectancy. A person with cystic fibrosis may have frequent and recurring lung infections, like bronchitis or pneumonia. Each infection causes additional damage to the lungs.
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What Is a Lung Transplant?
Only people with severe lung disease or damage are considered for lung transplantation. After completing a thorough evaluation, they are placed on the lung transplant waiting list and wait for a pair of donor lungs to become available. During a lung transplant, a surgeon replaces the damaged lungs from a person with CF with the healthy lungs of a recently deceased donor.
Recovery after surgery may take some time, as this procedure is invasive. You may be housed in the intensive care unit for some time and placed on a ventilator, which mechanically breathes for you. Antibiotics and immunosuppressant drugs are typically administered immediately. These immunosuppressant drugs are required for the rest of your life to keep your transplanted lungs healthy.
Once you are discharged from the hospital, you may have to return to the transplant center every day for follow-up appointments and additional testing including x-rays, lung biopsies, and blood tests.
Risks of Lung Transplant
Like any type of surgery, lung transplantation has risks. The body can reject the new lungs, either rapidly after surgery, or progressively over months with no obvious symptoms. Some symptoms include fever, tiredness, and trouble breathing.
Some people may experience serious loss of lung function, or chronic lung allograft dysfunction, even after transplantation with healthy lungs. Some will experience chronic infections, blockage of blood flow to the airways, or even cancer, diabetes, or kidney disease as a result.
The Cystic Fibrosis Foundation recommends weighing the risks and benefits of a lung transplant for cystic fibrosis before making a decision to undergo surgery because it is a complex process. Lung transplantation can offer some people improved quality of life, while others may experience continued complications.
Can You Cure Cystic Fibrosis with a Lung Transplant?
Lung transplantation will not cure a person who has cystic fibrosis. After going through a lung transplant, you will have a healthy set of working lungs, provided your body doesn’t reject the transplant.
However, you will still have CF in other parts of your body. Those parts will still be affected by CF, and you should still perform routine care for those organs.
About 87 percent of people who have lung transplants for CF will be alive one year later, according to the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation. By the nine-year mark, approximately 50 percent of people who had a lung transplant are still living.
When a lung transplant is successful, the recipient can breathe more easily and begin doing activities they enjoyed before their lungs were damaged.
For more information about transplant and treatment options for cystic fibrosis, visit the UPMC Lung Transplant program website
About Transplant Services
Established in 1981, UPMC Transplant Services is one of the foremost organ transplant centers in the world. Our clinicians have performed more than 20,000 organ transplant procedures, including liver, kidney, pancreas, single and double lung, heart, and more. We are home to some of the world’s foremost transplant experts and have a long history of developing new antirejection therapies—so organ recipients can enjoy better health with fewer restrictions.