01/29/2013 03:48 pm ET

Smokers' Lungs Could Be Good Option For Adults Needing Double-Lung Transplant, Study Suggests

Despite what you might otherwise think, smokers' lungs can be a good option for adults in need of a double-lung transplant, according to a new study.

The research, presented at the annual meeting of the Society of Thoracic Surgeons, shows that people who received carefully selected smokers lungs (defined as coming from a person who smoked a pack a day for at least 20 years) had the same short- and medium-term survival, compared with those who received lungs from nonsmokers. Because the study has yet to be published in a peer-reviewed journal, the findings should be regarded as preliminary.

Right now, transplanting lungs from a smoker is not recommended, but it is done from time to time, the researchers reported.

"For example, a surgeon may choose to transplant lungs from a healthy donor who has good lung function despite heavy smoking, or lungs may be accepted from a less than ideal donor for a very sick patient," study researcher Dr. Sharven Taghavi, M.D., of Temple University Hospital, said in a statement.

The new study is based on the outcomes from 5,900 people who received double-lung transplants between 2005 and 2011, whose transplants were recorded in the United Network for Organ Sharing database. Of those transplants, 766 of them (or 13 percent) were of smokers' lungs.

Researchers found that not only was survival similar between nonsmokers' lungs transplants and smokers' lungs transplants, but lung function and death from malignancy post-transplant was also not different between the two.

Taghavi noted that the research is not saying just any smoker's lungs should be used for research -- it's important to scan the lungs carefully for cancer or emphysema, in addition to other assessment measures. And it's also important for doctors to communicate properly with lung transplant recipients about potential risks that could arise from receiving lungs from a smoker.

Fox News reported that the research was conducted to try to find a solution for the long waiting lists for lung transplants:

According to the NHLBI, more than 1,600 patients in need of lung transplants were on the Organ Procurement and Transplantation Network waiting list by the end of 2012. Even as that number fluctuates, the NHLBI estimates that only half of those on the list will receive their needed transplant each year.

Last year, a study published in the journal The Lancet showed that people who receive lungs from a smoker are 21 percent more likely to survive than if they just stayed on the waiting list for a transplant. However, that study also showed that risk of death three years post-transplant is 46 percent higher among people who receive smokers' lungs than those who receive non-smokers' lungs.

"This study establishes that, although … donor smoking history adversely affects recipients' survival, not to use such donors would increase overall mortality by compromising patients' survival from waiting-list entry," the researchers wrote in the study.

Recently, smokers' lung transplants made headlines when a young British woman with cystic fibrosis died after receiving lungs from a smoker. She went on to develop lung cancer that spread throughout her body, and died 16 months after receiving the transplant.