A remarkable milestone in medicine was reached by doctors in Maryland who have successfully transplanted a genetically modified pig’s heart into a human patient in a do-or-die situation.
David Bennet, a 57-year-old handyman, was the recipient of this life-saving operation. He knew that the highly experimental operation might not work, however, he was ineligible for a human heart and quickly fading, so he decided to take the leap of faith.
“It was either die or do this transplant. I want to live. I know it’s a shot in the dark, but it’s my last choice,” said Bennet one day before the historic surgery took place according to a statement from the University of Maryland School of Medicine.
After three days, Bennet was breathing on his own (although still connected to a heart-lung machine to support his new heart). Doctors say that it’s too soon to tell if the operation was a complete success, but it still marks a huge step forward in the mission to one day be able to use animal organs to save human lives. Over the next few weeks, doctors will be carefully monitoring the patient and his new heart as he recovers from surgery.
There’s a huge shortage of human organs donated for transplants, which is why scientists and medical professionals are looking to animal organs instead.
“If this works, there will be an endless supply of these organs for patients who are suffering,” said Dr. Muhammad Mohiuddin, scientific director of the university’s animal-to-human transplant program.
This is not the first time animal organ transplants (or xenotransplantation) have been attempted, however, these attempts have mostly failed because the human body quickly rejects the animal organ. In 1985, a dying infant called Baby Fae actually lived for 21 entire days with a baboon heart.
What the doctors believe will make a difference this time is the fact that the pig heart had gone through gene-editing to remove a sugar in its cells that is the cause for hyper-fast organ rejection.
“I think you can characterize [the Maryland transplant] as a watershed event,” says the United Network for Organ Sharing (Unos) chief medical officer Dr. David Klassen.
Whether the experimental heart transplant truly works or not, the data gathered from it will be crucial for the further development of xenotransplantation surgery.
The doctor who performed the surgery, Dr. Bartley Griffith, had successfully transplanted pig hearts into around 50 baboons over a five-year period before offering the surgery to Bennet.
“We’re learning a lot every day with this gentleman,” Griffith said. “And so far, we’re happy with our decision to move forward. And he is as well: big smile on his face today.”