The study had been conducted using an animal model of lung transplants, and it found that donors, who consume alcohol frequently, promote scarring and airway injury after transplantation.
Authors Patrick Mitchell, PhD, a postdoctoral researcher, and David Guidot, MD, professor of medicine at Emory University School of Medicine and director of the Emory Alcohol and Lung Biology Centre, commented that the find caused questions to arise regarding human lung donors who had a history of alcohol abuse.
Its findings have prompted doctors at Emory to begin a clinical study of the post-transplant effects of alcohol use among lung donors.
"There are reasons to be concerned that chronic alcohol abuse by donors could increase the risk of complications in the transplanted lung," Dr. Guidot says.
"Our goal is not to exclude donors, which would be the worst case scenario. Rather, it is to understand the biology, so that we can know how to intervene and make outcomes better," he added.
Dr. Mitchell, who designed the animal experiments, says that the team's long-term goals are to develop biological tests to measure the effects of alcohol on the lung and ways to compensate for those effects.
About a sixth of deceased organ donors have a history of heavy alcohol consumption, defined as two or more drinks per day, according to the United Network for Organ Sharing (UNOS) database. That's more than triple the rate in the general population.
Previous studies have shown that donor alcohol abuse increases the risk of heart failure after heart transplantation. But so far, clinical data describing the effect of alcohol abuse on lung transplants has been scarce.
"There is considerable evidence that alcohol abuse increases the risk for lung disease and lung injury," Dr. Guidot says. "So it is a natural progression to look at lung transplants."
In lung transplantation, chronic rejection comes in the form of obliterative bronchiolitis, a slow destruction of the lung followed by remodelling of the lung into scar tissue and irreversible airflow limitation.
"Chronic rejection remains the major barrier to successful lung transplantation and unfortunately, suppressing the immune system doesn't change the outcome," he says.
The study will be published in the Dec. 1 issue of the American Journal of Respiratory and Critical Care Medicine.