Recipients of organ transplants have been found to be twice as likely to develop an advanced and aggressive form of skin cancer and up to three times more likely to die from the disease, compared with those who do not undergo the procedure, according to a new study.

Researchers at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health (JHSPH) in Maryland discovered that the immunosuppressive drugs often provided to transplant patients in order to prevent their bodies from rejecting their new organ could also cause them to develop advanced forms of cancer that are more difficult to treat.

The study also found that organ transplant patients are four times more susceptible to developing a regional form of melanoma that has likely begun spreading to other body parts.

JHSPH researcher Hilary A. Robbins of the school's epidemiology department said that while recipients of organ transplants have been identified to be more susceptible to melanoma, doctors initially thought this was a result of intensive patient screening. That's because these individuals are more likely to develop less life-threatening forms of cancers and are regularly checked by skin specialists.

The findings of the study, however, were contradictory to this earlier theory, as transplant patients were shown to be more at risk for developing skin cancers not discovered until the cancer cells have already spread to other regions of the body.

The researchers also noted that transplant patients are more susceptible to aggressive forms of melanoma that develop within the first four years after undergoing the procedure.

It was initially believed that immunosuppressive drugs could potentially act cumulatively, and that such forms of cancers would only develop later on — after years of receiving the medication. People who undergo organ transplants are required to take immunosuppressive drugs for the remainder of their lives in order to keep their bodies from rejecting the replacement organ.

In their study, Robbins and her fellow researchers noted that candidates for organ transplants should be carefully screened for forms of melanoma before undergoing the invasive procedure.

Robbins said there is a possibility that some of the skin cancers could have already been present in the body of a patient during the operation, and that the immunosuppressive medicine allows these diseases to spread freely to other areas.

She added that closer monitoring of transplant patients after the operation could allow skin cancers to be detected immediately and prevent individuals from developing metastatic cancer.

The Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health study is featured in the Journal of Investigative Dermatology.

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