Two people who contracted hepatitis C after they received tissue transplants from an infected donor filed separate multimillion dollar lawsuits against the tissue and organ banks that screened and supplied the tissue.
The two lawsuits, which were filed separately Thursday, ask for a combined $27.4 million in damages from the nonprofit organizations Community Tissue Services and Pacific Northwest Transplant Bank, both in Portland.
Investigators believe up to 40 patients received organs or tissue from the infected donor. They have located 18 so far; six were likely infected from the transplants, said Dr. Katrina Hedberg, medical epidemiologist with the Oregon Health Division.
Hepatitis C can lead to liver failure and in some cases can be fatal.
The case is extremely unusual, medical experts say, because the donor was infected with hepatitis C at the time of his death but did not immediately test positive because the test searched for antibodies and not the disease itself.
The body can take up to six weeks to produce detectable levels of the specialized virus-fighting proteins, creating a window of time between infection and reliable test results, they said. Tests on the donor’s blood done weeks later, after the tissue recipients got sick, tested positive for the antibodies, Hedberg said.
“The situation was a window and it’s extremely, extremely rare,” said Jill Steinhaus of LifeCenter Northwest, an organ procurement organization that serves Alaska, Montana, Washington and northern Idaho.
The lawsuits allege that the tissue and organ banks didn’t perform adequate tests on the donor’s body before allowing the transplants.
They should have used a more thorough test adopted by blood banks in 1999 and should have warned potential recipients that hepatitis C was a transplant risk, according to the lawsuit.
“One would have thought that this could have been stopped a long time ago,” said Jeffrey Wihtol, attorney for plaintiff Donald Payne and his wife, Candace. “We want to bring some attention to this and hopefully the tissue banks will do this voluntarily.”
The Paynes, along with an unidentified 51-year-old woman and her husband, filed separate but nearly identical lawsuits and hope to have the trials combined, said Jan Baisch, attorney for the unnamed couple. Damages would be decided separately for each couple, Baisch said.
Both plaintiffs had surgery to repair torn knee ligaments in April 2002, using tissue from the same donor, a Portland man in his 40s who died from a brain hemorrhage. Within weeks, both got sick, their attorneys said.
“She had surgery in April and she turned yellow in May,” Baisch said of his client.
Mike Seely, executive director of the Pacific Northwest Transplant Bank, said his organization did all the required tests on the donor â€” including a liver biopsy â€” and all tests came back negative for hepatitis C.
The more sophisticated test called for by the patients’ attorneys is unreliable, doesn’t have federal approval for cadavers and can take a week to get results, said Seely. That’s unacceptable in the minute-to-minute world of organ transplants, he said.
“It’s regrettable, but there’s nothing that can really be done in these cases until science catches up with a test that can eliminate the window,” he said. “We don’t take this lightly. We’re as thorough as we can be and as thorough as current diagnostic testing can be.”
Diane Wilson, chief operation officers with Community Tissue Services, called the case unfortunate, but said there was nothing her organization could do to prevent it. She said the tissue bank processes 1,800 tissue donations annually and has not seen a similar case in its 16 years of operation.