NEW YORK — Some patients in desperate need of kidney transplants participated in a bold experiment where they received organs infected with hepatitis C.

The gamble paid off.

Their new organs are working fine, thanks to medication that got rid of the virus, researchers reported Monday.

It was a small study involving just 20 patients. But researchers say it suggests that organs currently going to waste just might help speed transplants for patients who wait years to get one.

“When there’s such a bad organ shortage, we can’t just do business as usual,” said Dr. Peter Reese, a University of Pennsylvania kidney specialist who led the study. “We need to shake off that these organs aren’t valuable and that people will not want them.”

In the United States, almost 95,000 people are on the national kidney waiting list but only 19,850 received a transplant in 2017, according to the United Network for Organ Sharing. That only covers about 20 percent of all cases.

Hepatitis C is an infection that can quietly destroy someone’s liver if untreated. Transplanting other organs from patients with the virus can infect the recipients. But with powerful new drugs now available that promise to cure them, Reese’s team decided to test if it’s safe to transplant infected kidneys to people who don’t already have the virus – but who might not survive the wait for a healthy organ.

Twelve weeks of hepatitis treatment cleared the virus in all 20 patients tested so far. Compared to patients who received uninfected organs, their new kidneys work just as well, even a year after the procedure. Merck & Co. helped fund the research and provided the pills in the study. Results were published in the journal Annals of Internal Medicine.

“This is a lifesaver,” said Kiran Shelat, a 65-year-old retired civil engineer from Yardley, Pennsylvania. “Get off the list; get the kidney. There is nothing to be afraid of.”

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