A 57-year-old man with serious heart disease was given a heart from a genetically modified pig in a new, unprecedented transplant operation.
The New York Times reported on the “first successful transplant of a pig’s heart into a human being,” a procedure that lasted eight hours and took place in Baltimore, Maryland, on Friday. The man, David Bennett Sr., received the heart and was in good condition on Monday, per surgeons at the University of Maryland Medical Center.
“It creates the pulse, it creates the pressure, it is his heart,” said Dr. Bartley Griffith, who carried out the operation. He is the director of the cardiac transplant program at the center.
Griffith added, “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.”
“This is a watershed event,” said Dr. David Klassen, the chief medical officer of the United Network for Organ Sharing and a transplant doctor. “Doors are starting to open that will lead, I believe, to major changes in how we treat organ failure.”
“Events like these can be dramatized in the press, and it’s important to maintain perspective,” Klassen added. “It takes a long time to mature a therapy like this.” He noted that there are lots of challenges to surpass before an operation like this one could be widely done.
Bennett chose to go forward with the procedure because he would not have survived without getting a new heart, had already gone through with other treatments, and was not healthy enough to meet the qualifications for a heart from a human donor, per members of his family and physicians, according to the Times.
Bennett is still on a heart-lung bypass machine, as he was before the procedure took place, but that is not uncommon for someone who has newly received a heart transplant, according to medical experts.
His physicians stated that he could be brought off the machine on Tuesday. He is also being carefully watched for evidence that his body is fighting the new organ transplant, but he got through the first 48 hours without problems, which is reportedly an important time period.
“It was either die or do this transplant,” Bennett said before the surgery, according to authorities at the University of Maryland Medical Center. “I want to live. I know it’s a shot in the dark, but it’s my last choice.”
The outlet reported that the heart which was put into Bennett’s body “came from a genetically altered pig provided by Revivicor, a regenerative medicine company based in Blacksburg, Va.”
The animal “had 10 genetic modifications. Four genes were knocked out, or inactivated, including one that encodes a molecule that causes an aggressive human rejection response,” the outlet noted, adding that a growth gene was also deactivated to not allow the pig’s heart to keep growing after implantation.
“In addition, six human genes were inserted into the genome of the donor pig — modifications designed to make the porcine organs more tolerable to the human immune system,” the Times noted.
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration gave the transplant doctors an emergency authorization for the procedure on New Year’s Eve.
Dr. Christine Lau is the chair of the Department of Surgery at the University of Maryland School of Medicine and was in the operating room during the procedure.
“He’s at more of a risk because we require more immunosuppression, slightly different than we would normally do in a human-to-human transplant. How well the patient does from now is, you know, it’s never been done before so we really don’t know,” she told the BBC.
“People die all the time on the waiting list, waiting for organs. If we could use genetically engineered pig organs they’d never have to wait, they could basically get an organ as they needed it. …Plus, we wouldn’t have to fly all over the country at night-time to recover organs to put them into recipients,” she added.
The Times noted that there is an organ shortage and around twelve people on the transplant waiting lists die every day.
The pandemic has impacted the low number of organ donations and transplant operations, as well.
A May 2020 report from Penn Medicine News noted that by early April 2020 transplant centers in France and the United States were carrying out fewer deceased donor transplants than they had been one month prior.
The findings, published in The Lancet in May of 2020, noted, “The overall reduction in deceased donor transplantations since the COVID-19 outbreak was 90·6% in France and 51·1% in the USA, respectively.”