In a first-of-its-kind medical procedure, a team of doctors transplanted a pig’s heart into a patient, a last-ditch effort to save his life. The Maryland hospital said Monday that three days after the highly experimental operation, the patient was doing well.
While it’s too early to tell if the surgery will actually work, the medical procedure marks a step in decades of hard work to one day be able to use animal organs for life-saving transplants.
A team of doctors at the University of Maryland Medical Center said the transplant showed hearts from genetically modified animals could function in the human body, without outright rejection.
The patient, David Bennet, who is 57 years old, knows that there are no guarantees for the trial. But the man is in his current condition and does not qualify for a human heart transplant, and he has no other choice, his son told the news agency. Associated Press.
According to a statement provided by the University of Maryland School of Medicine, the day before the operation Bennett said “the choice is either to die or to have this transplant. I want to live. I know exactly this is an experiment with no guarantee of success, but this is my last resort.”
The lack of human organs donated for transplants has prompted scientists to work hard to find ways to use animal organs instead.
According to the United Network for Organ Sharing, which oversees America’s organ transplant system, last year there were more than 3,800 heart transplants in America, a record-breaking record.
“If this animal-to-human organ transplant is successful, there will be an endless supply of organs for the suffering patients,” said Dr. Muhammad Mohiuddin, scientific director of the university’s animal-to-human organ transplant program.
But previous attempts at such transplants – or xenotransplants – have failed. Mainly because the patient’s body quickly rejects the animal’s organs. This was especially apparent in 1984, when a dying Baby Fae lived for 21 days with a monkey heart.
The difference this time was that Maryland surgeons used genetically edited pig hearts to remove sugars in their cells that were thought to cause rapid organ rejection.
“I think we can classify it as an important event,” said Dr. David Klassen, UNOS’ chief medical officer, about the transplant in Maryland. However Klassen cautions that this is only the first tentative step to explore whether this time the xenotransplant is successful.
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), which oversees xenotransplant experiments, allows surgery under so-called “compassionate use” emergency authorizations that are taken when patients with life-threatening conditions have no other choice.
Researchers in New York conducted an experiment in September showing that this breed of pig might hold promise for organ transplantation from animals to humans. That’s when doctors attached – for a time – a pig kidney to a dead human body, and watched it start working.
Dr. Robert Montgomery, who led the experiment at NYU Langone Health last September, said the transplant in Maryland took their experimentation to the next level. “This is a truly remarkable breakthrough,” he said in a statement. “As a recipient of a heart transplant, I myself have a genetic heart defect, and I am thrilled by this news. There is hope for my family and the families of other patients who will eventually be saved through this breakthrough.”
Karen Maschke, a researcher at the Hastings Center who helped develop ethical and policy recommendations for the first clinical trial based on a grant from the NIH National Institutes of Health, said it was important to share the data collected from these transplants before opening up options to more patients. “(We) do not recommend transplanting organs from animals to humans in a hurry, without information,” he said.
The operation to transplant a pig’s heart into a human in Maryland took place on Friday (7/1) at a Baltimore hospital.
David Bennet Jr, son of the patient who received the transplant, said “he (his father) realized the magnitude of the breakthrough and he really recognized the importance of this experiment. It may not last, or last for a day, or several days. I mean, at the moment we really don’t know.” [em/jm]