U.S. surgeons have successfully implanted the heart of a genetically modified pig into a human patient in a medical first, saving the patient’s life. Doctors at the University of Maryland Medical Center said Monday that the patient, David Bennett Sr, is doing well three days after the surgery.
This is the first time a genetically modified animal heart has been transplanted into a human body without immediate rejection, according to the doctors. Bennett, a 57-year-old Maryland handyman, had been in hospital for weeks with a heart arrhythmia and was dying.
The only thing that kept him alive was a heart-lung bypass machine and he had been told that he was ineligible for a human heart transplant because of his condition — heart failure and an irregular heartbeat. So with no other option, he agreed for the doctors to transplant a pig heart into him.
“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,” Bennett said a day before the surgery, a statement provided by the University of Maryland School of Medicine said.
The surgery was conducted on Friday by Dr. Bartley Griffith at the Baltimore hospital with emergency authorization from the Food and Drug Administration.
“This was a breakthrough surgery and brings us one step closer to solving the organ shortage crisis. There are simply not enough donor human hearts available to meet the long list of potential recipients,” said Griffith in a statement.
Last year, there were just over 3,800 heart transplants in the U.S., according to figures cited by the AP. And due to a huge shortage of human organs donated for transplant, scientists are trying to find ways to use animal organs instead. Doctors have earlier attempted such transplants (or xenotransplantation) but have not been successful mainly due to patients’ bodies rapidly rejecting the animal organ, the AP reported. In 1984, Baby Fae, a dying infant, lived 21 days with a baboon heart.
What is different with Bennett’s surgery is that the doctors “used a heart from a pig that had undergone gene-editing to remove a sugar in its cells that’s responsible for that hyper-fast organ rejection,” according to AP.
At the moment, biotech companies are developing pig organs for human transplant. What was used for Bennet’s surgery was from Revivicor, a subsidiary of United Therapeutics.
“It creates the pulse, it creates the pressure, it is his heart,” Griffith told The New York Times. “It’s working and it looks normal. We are thrilled, but we don’t know what tomorrow will bring us. This has never been done before.”
A previous surgery involved putting a pig valve into Bennett’s heart, but Friday’s operation has moved things forward.