Sixty-five-year-old Betty Huart was dying of liver cancer. If she was lucky, in a few months she would turn 66—the age her father had been when he died of the same disease. While her name had already been added to the list of those waiting for a liver transplant, the supply of healthy organs was far too small to ensure she’d ever get one. The clock was ticking, and her options were rapidly running out.
Then she got a call about a new clinical trial that was decidedly unconventional.
Last June I wrote an article about the opioid crisis. One of the people profiled was a frum woman whose addiction developed after she was prescribed increasingly larger amounts of painkillers following surgery. The article also explored the fact that the opioid crisis is different from other types of abuse in that it doesn’t begin on a dark street corner but usually in a hospital, under a doctor’s care.
A few years ago, looking to reduce the potential for addiction to Oxycontin, a common narcotic painkiller, Purdue Pharma, the pharmaceutical company that makes the drug, developed an abuse-resistant version. While this was great news for new patients, it was devastating for those who were already addicted to the old one as the new pill simply didn’t work for them. As a result, many people who were already hooked on opioids, especially men in their twenties, turned to harder and more dangerous drugs to quell their pain.
The raging opioid crisis then turned into a hepatitis C crisis, with shared needles spreading the most common infectious disease in the world more widely than ever before. The subsequent wave of drug overdoses led to the increased availability of hep C-infected organs from young, otherwise healthy adult males, but they were obviously unusable. What would be the point of transplanting a diseased liver into someone who needed a healthy one? As far as the doctors knew, these livers were irreparably tainted.
That is why the story of Betty Huart, the first liver cancer patient to receive a hepatitis C-infected organ and recover, holds great hope for those on organ transplant lists everywhere.
It was a Wednesday evening in mid-March 2019. Sixty-five-year-old Betty Huart was sitting in her home in Highlands Ranch, a Colorado suburb 12 miles south of Denver, with her husband, Steve. Thirty-two years earlier, her father had passed away from liver cancer, the same illness that she was now battling. The family history didn’t bode well for her survival.