Jan. 10, 2022
In a groundbreaking operation that offers hope to people waiting for organ transplants, the heart of a genetically modified pig has been transplanted into a 57-year-old man who had end-stage heart disease.
The patient, David Bennett Sr., received the heart on Friday at the University of Maryland Medical Center. In a news release, school called the procedure “historic” and a “first of its kind transplant.”
The operation was conducted after the FDA granted emergency authorization for the transplant through its expanded access (compassionate use) provision, the Medical Center said. Bennett had been judged ineligible for a human heart transplant because of his weak health, leaving the pig transplant the only option.
“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 the day before the surgery, according to the release. “I look forward to getting out of bed after I recover.”
“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 Bartley P. Griffith, M.D., who transplanted the pig heart.
“We are proceeding cautiously, but we are also optimistic that this first-in-the-world surgery will provide an important new option for patients in the future.”
The United Network for Organ Sharing says more than 106,000 people are on organ transplant waiting lists as of Monday. About 40,000 people received organ transplants last year, with about 3,800 of them being heart transplants. But because of the organ shortage, 17 people on waiting lists die daily, according to the U.S. Health Resources and Services Administration.
Scientists hope that xenotransplantation – implanting an organ from one species into another – will reduce the organ shortage and lengthen the lives of people on waiting lists. Last October, a kidney grown in a genetically altered pig was transplanted into a brain-dead person at NYU Langone Health in New York City.
The pig for the heart transplant was raised for just such a procedure by Revivicor, a regenerative medicine company based in Blacksburg, Va.
The New York Times reported that the pig had 10 genetic modifications to make the heart acceptable to a human. Some of the modifications are designed to keep the heart from growing after transplant and to make the organ more tolerable to the human immune system, The Times said.
Last Friday, the surgical team removed the pig’s heart and placed it into a machine that preserved it until surgery. The team also used a new drug made by Kiniksa Pharmaceuticals to keep the human body from rejecting the pig’s heart, the medical school said.
Bennett is being watched closely at the hospital. He’s still connected to the heart-lung bypass machine that kept him alive before the transplant, but the new heart is functioning, The Times said. Doctors said he should be taken off the bypass machine on Tuesday.
“This is a watershed event,” David Klassen, M.D., the chief medical officer of the United Network for Organ Sharing, told The Times. “Doors are starting to open that will lead, I believe, to major changes in how we treat organ failure.”