The first-ever successful transplant of a porcine heart into a human’s chest cavity took place last week in a Maryland hospital. Three days after the grueling seven-hour operation, the patient, David Bennett Sr., is reportedly as happy as a pig in mud.
“It’s working and it looks normal,” Dr. Bartley Griffith, who performed the operation, told The New York Times. “We are thrilled, but we don’t know what tomorrow will bring us. This has never been done before.”
The highly experimental operation took place as part of a last-ditch effort to save Bennett’s life. The 57-year-old, diagnosed with a life-threatening heart disease, was at a point where his condition had rendered him ineligible for a human heart transplant. His heart arrhythmia had left him hospitalized in the weeks before the procedure. Only a heart-lung bypass machine was keeping him alive.
“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 in a statement issued a day before the surgery.
On Monday, the handyman was breathing on his own, albeit still connected to machinery designed to aid the new heart. He could be taken off the machine as soon as Tuesday. University of Maryland Medical Center doctors said they will continue to monitor Bennett over the coming weeks.
The initial transplant, given “compassionate use” emergency authorization by the Food and Drug Administration on New Year’s Eve, has shown for the first time that an organ from a genetically modified animal can be successfully implanted in a human being without immediate rejection. It comes just months after New York surgeons successfully transplanted the kidney of a genetically altered pig into a brain-dead patient on a ventilator.
The pig that provided the heart placed in Bennett had undergone a gene-editing process that removed a sugar in its cells that catalyzes swift organ rejection, according to the Associated Press. Several companies, including Revivicor, which provided Bennett’s pig donor, continue to fine-tune the xenotransplantation process after decades of failure.
Friday’s surgery, the Maryland doctors said, was a scientific breakthrough with the potential to provide hope to scores of severely ill patients. More than 100,000 people in the United States are currently awaiting organ transplants. Roughly 12 people on these waiting lists die every day.
“I think you can characterize it as a watershed event,” Dr. David Klassen, the chief medical officer of the United Network for Organ Sharing, said of the Maryland transplant.
But, he added, it is “important to maintain perspective.” Ethical policy recommendations for these kinds of procedures are still under development, however, and it could be years before the treatment matures out of clinical trial phases and into mainstream use.
Griffith, who heads up the cardiac transplant program at the Maryland medical center, said he has successfully transplanted dozens of pigs’ hearts into baboons over the last five years. He approached Bennett with the offer to perform a similar procedure in mid-December, according to the Times.
“I wasn’t sure he was understanding me,” the doctor said of Bennett’s initial reaction. “Then he said, ‘Well, will I oink?’”
During the surgery, Griffith explained to the Times, “the anatomy was a little squirrelly, and we had a few moments of ‘uh-oh.’” But the transplant team righted the ship with “some clever plastic surgery.” As they removed the final clamp, he said, “the heart fired right up.”
The Maryland doctors have emphasized that Bennett’s prognosis remains uncertain. “We’re learning a lot every day with this gentleman,” Griffith explained. But “so far, we’re happy with our decision to move forward. And he is as well: big smile on his face today.”