For the first time in medicine, doctors transplanted a pig’s heart into a patient in a last-ditch effort to save his life, and a Maryland hospital said Monday that he was doing well three days after the experimental surgery.
While it’s too early to tell if the surgery will actually work, it marks a step in a decades-long quest to one day use animal organs for rescue transplants. Doctors at the University of Maryland Medical Center say the transplant has shown that the heart of a genetically modified animal can function in the human body without immediate rejection.
The patient, 57-year-old David Bennett, knew there was no guarantee the experiment would work, but he was dying, was not eligible for a human heart transplant and had no other choice, his son told the Associated Press.
“It was either to die or to have this transplant. I want to live. I know this is a shot in the dark, but this is my last choice, ”Bennett said the day before surgery, according to a statement provided by the University of Maryland School of Medicine.
There is a huge shortage of human organs donated for transplant, leading scientists to try to figure out how to use animal organs instead. Just over 3,800 heart transplants were performed in the United States last year, a record number, according to the United Network for Organ Sharing, which oversees the nation’s transplant system.
“If it works, suffering patients will have an endless supply of these organs,” said Dr. Muhammad Mohiuddin, scientific director of the university’s animal-to-human transplant program.
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But previous attempts at such a transplant – or xenotransplantation – have failed, largely because the bodies of the patients quickly rejected the animal’s organ. It is noteworthy that in 1984, the dying infant Baby Fay lived 21 days with a baboon’s heart.
This time, the difference: Maryland surgeons used the heart of a gene-edited pig to remove sugar from its cells, which is responsible for ultra-rapid organ rejection.
“I think you can describe this as a watershed event,” said Dr. David Klassen, Chief Medical Officer of UNOS, of the Maryland transplant.
However, Klassen warned that this is only the first preliminary step in investigating whether xenotransplantation might finally work this time.
The FDA, which oversees the xenotransplant experiments, authorized the operation in accordance with the so-called “compassionate use” of emergency clearance, available when a patient with a life-threatening condition has no other options.
Just last September, researchers in New York conducted an experiment suggesting that these types of pigs could hold promise for animal-to-human transplants. Doctors temporarily attached a pig’s kidney to the body of a deceased person and watched it start to work.
“The Maryland transplant is taking their experiment to the next level,” said Dr. Robert Montgomery, who led the experiment at NYU Langone Health.
“This is truly an outstanding breakthrough,” he said in a statement. “As a heart transplant recipient, myself with a genetic heart disease, I am thrilled with this news and the hope it gives my family and other patients who will ultimately be saved through this breakthrough.”
According to Karen Maschke, a research fellow at the Hastings Center who is helping develop ethics and policy guidelines for the first clinical trials under a grant from the National Institutes of Health.
“It would be inappropriate to rush to transplant from animals to humans without this information,” Maschke said.
The operation last Friday lasted seven hours at a Baltimore hospital.
“He understands the magnitude of what has been done, and he really understands the importance of it,” said David Bennett Jr. of his father. “He couldn’t live, or he could last a day, or he could last a couple of days. I mean we are in the dark right now. “
AP medical writer Laurent Niergaard contributed.