Medicine has indeed come a long way since December 3rd, 1967, when 53-year-old Louis Washkansky, dying from chronic heart disease, made history as the first human to successfully receive a heart transplant from another human donor.
Fast forward to the present, and once again history has been made. This time, with a genetically altered pig’s heart transplanted into a human being.
“It’s working and it looks normal. We are thrilled, but we don’t know what tomorrow will bring us. This has never been done before,” said Dr. Bartley Griffith, the director of the cardiac transplant program at the University of Maryland Medical Center, where he performed the eight-hour operation.
David Bennett was so sick he did not qualify for human heart transplant surgery. That was before the ground breaking operation in Baltimore. Tethered to a heart-lung bypass machine, Bennett’s only hope of survival was to repeat Washkansky’s successful unprecedented feat that happened 54 years prior.
So, on January 7th, 2022, the 57-year-old terminally ill patient from Maryland became the first human to successfully receive a genetically altered pig’s heart.
A true watershed moment in the world of ❤️ #Transplant. Xenotransplantation is the next stage of evolution for organ transplantation and will save the lives of thousands. @HFSA@ISHLT— Ali Nsair, MD (@AliNsairMD) January 10, 2022
First, Man Receives a Heart From a Genetically Altered Pig https://t.co/rItJ5AcBA3 pic.twitter.com/pFoo7MEr28
The critical 48-hour post-procedure period went without incident as doctors continue to monitor Bennett for signs and symptoms of rejection, as well as a rare infection from a pig virus that can infect humans.
The transplant was considered Bennett’s last hope of survival, although it’s not clear what his long-term chances of survival are.
“It was either die or do this transplant,” Mr. Bennett explained a day before the surgery.
According to Dr. Christine Lau, chair at the department of surgery at the University of Maryland School Of Medicine, “People die all the time on the waiting list, waiting for organs. If we could use genetically engineered pig organs they’d never have to wait, they could basically get an organ as they needed it.”
“Plus, we wouldn’t have to fly all over the country at nighttime to recover organs to put them into recipients.”
Concerning Mr. Bennett’s prognosis after the historic surgery, Dr. Lau acknowledged, “He’s at more of a risk because we require more immunosuppression, slightly different than we would normally do in a human-to-human transplant. How well the patient does from now is, you know, it’s never been done before so we really don’t know.”
According to recent data, more than 100,000 patients within the United States are on a transplant waiting list and approximately 17 people die each and every day waiting for a donor.
Researchers are hoping this groundbreaking operation will usher in a new era of medicine where replacement organs from genetically modified pig hearts can alleviate the need for human donors.
Last year, 41,354 patients received a transplanted organ in the United States, with more than 50% receiving kidneys, according to the United Network for Organ Sharing.
The AFP news agency reported that the pig used in the transplant had been genetically changed to block out several genes that would have led to the organ being rejected by Mr. Bennett’s body.
For the medical team who carried out the transplant, it marks the culmination of years of research and could change lives around the world. We’re keeping Mr. Bennett in our prayers and hoping for his continued recovery.