U.S. doctors transplanted a pig heart into a patient in a final attempt to save his life – in a medical first – and the Maryland Hospital where the operation took place says he is fine three days after the highly experimental operation .
While it’s too early to know if the surgery will really work, it is a step in a decade-long quest to one day use animal organs for life-saving transplants.
Doctors at the University of Maryland Medical Center say the transplant showed 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, not eligible for a human heart transplant, and had no choice, his son told the Associated Press.
“It was either dying or doing this transplant. I want to live. I know it’s a shot in the dark, but it’s my last choice, “Mr. Bennett said the day before surgery, according to a statement from the University of Maryland School of Medicine.
There is a huge shortage of human organs donated for transplants, which is leading scientists to figure out how to use animal organs instead.
There were just over 3,800 heart transplants in the U.S. last year, a record number, according to the United Network for Organ Sharing, which oversees the country’s transplant system.
“If this works, there will be an endless supply of these organs to suffering patients,” said Dr. Muhammad Mohiuddin, Scientific Director of the University’s Animal-to-Human Transplant Program.
But previous attempts at such transplants – or xenografts – have failed, mainly because the patient’s bodies quickly rejected the animal organ.
In 1984, Baby Fae, a dying child, lived with a baboon heart for 21 days. The difference this time around is that the surgeons in Maryland used a heart from a pig that had undergone gene editing to remove a sugar in its cells that was responsible for the organ’s rejection.
“I think you can call it a turning point,” said Dr. David Klassen, UNOS Chief Medical Officer, on the transplant in Maryland.
Still, Dr. Classes that this is just a tentative first step to investigate whether xenotransplantation could finally work this time.
The Food and Drug Administration, which oversees xenotransplant experiments, has approved the operation under a compassionate use permit, which is available when a patient with a life-threatening condition has no other options.
Just last September, researchers in New York conducted an experiment that suggested these type of pigs might show promise for animal-to-human transplants. Doctors temporarily attached a pig kidney to a deceased human body and watched it begin to work.
The Maryland transplant takes their experiment to the next level, said Dr. Robert Montgomery, who led this experiment at NYU Langone Health.
“This is a truly remarkable breakthrough,” he said in a statement. “I myself am a recipient of a heart transplant with a genetic heart disease and I am delighted with this news and the hope it gives my family and other patients who will ultimately be saved by this breakthrough.”
The operation last Friday at Baltimore Hospital took seven hours.
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