Mark Teske / University of Maryland School of Medicine via AP
In a medical first, doctors transplanted a pig’s heart into a patient in a last-ditch effort to save his life and a Maryland hospital said Monday he was doing well three days after the highly experimental surgery.
While it’s too early to know if the surgery will really work, it marks a milestone in the decades-long quest to one day use animal organs for vital transplants. Doctors at the University of Maryland Medical Center say the transplant has shown that a heart from a genetically modified animal can function in the human body without immediate rejection.
The patient, David Bennett, 57, knew there was no guarantee the experiment would work, but he was dying, ineligible for a human heart transplant and had no other option, his son said at the Associated Press.
“It was either die or do this transplant. I want to live. I know it’s a blow in the dark, but it’s my last choice,” Bennett said a day before the operation, according to a statement. provided by the University of Maryland School. of Medicine.
There is a huge shortage of human organs donated for transplantation, leading scientists to try to figure out how to use animal organs instead. Last year there were just over 3,800 heart transplants in the United States, a record number, according to the United Network for Organ Sharing, which oversees the nation’s transplant system.
“If this works, there will be an inexhaustible supply of these organs for suffering patients,” said Dr Muhammad Mohiuddin, scientific director of the university’s animal-to-human transplant program.
But previous attempts at such transplants – or xenotransplants – have failed, in large part because patients’ bodies quickly rejected the animal organ. Notably, in 1984, Baby Fae, a dying infant, lived 21 days with a baboon heart.
The difference this time: Surgeons in Maryland used a pig’s heart that had undergone a genetic modification to remove a sugar in its cells that is responsible for this hyper-rapid organ rejection.
“I think you can characterize it as a watershed event,” UNOS chief medical officer Dr David Klassen said of the Maryland transplant.
Still, Klassen warned that this was only a tentative first step in determining whether this time around, xenotransplantation might finally work.
The Food and Drug Administration, which oversees the xenotransplantation experiments, authorized the surgery under what is called an emergency “compassionate use” authorization, available when a patient with a life-threatening illness does not. has no other options.
Last September, researchers in New York performed an experiment suggesting that these types of pigs may hold promise for animal-to-human transplants. Doctors temporarily attached a pig kidney to a deceased human body and watched it begin to function.
The Maryland transplant takes their experience to the next level, said Dr. Robert Montgomery, who led the experiment at NYU Langone Health.
“It’s a really remarkable breakthrough,” he said in a statement. “As a heart transplant recipient, myself with genetic heart disease, I am delighted with this news and the hope it gives to my family and other patients who will ultimately be saved by this. breakthrough.”
It will be crucial to share the data collected from this transplant before opening the option to more patients, said Karen Maschke, a researcher at the Hastings Center, who is helping develop ethical and policy recommendations for early clinical trials in under a grant from the National Institutes of Health.
“Rushing into animal-to-human transplants without this information would not be advisable,” Maschke said.
The operation last Friday lasted seven hours at a hospital in Baltimore.
“He realizes the magnitude of what has been done and he truly realizes the significance of it,” David Bennett Jr. said of his father. “He couldn’t live, or he could last a day, or he could last a few days. I mean, we’re in the dark at this point.”