In a medical first, American doctors have transplanted a pig’s heart into a patient in a last-ditch effort to save a patient’s life.
A Maryland hospital said he was recovering after three days of highly experimental surgery.
While it is too early to know whether the operation will actually work, it is a step in the decades-long quest to one day use animal organs for life-saving transplants.
Doctors at the University of Maryland Medical Center say the transplant has shown that the heart of 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, unfit for a human heart transplant and had no other choice, his son told the Associated Press. told.
“It was either die or transplant it. 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 the surgery, according to a statement provided by the University of Maryland School of Medicine.
There is an acute shortage of donated human organs for transplantation, forcing scientists to figure out how to use animal organs instead.
Last year, just over 3,800 heart transplants took place in the US, a record number, according to the United Network for Organ Sharing, which oversees the country’s transplant system.
“If it works, there will be an endless supply of these organs for afflicted patients,” said Dr. Muhammad Mohiuddin, scientific director of the university’s animal-to-human transplant program.
But prior attempts at such transplantation – or xenotransplantation – have failed, mainly because the patients’ bodies rapidly rejected the animal organ.
Notably, in 1984, Baby Fay, a dying infant, lived 21 days with a baboon heart.
The difference this time: Surgeons in Maryland used a heart from a pig that had gene-edited to remove a sugar in its cells that is responsible for that hyper-fast organ rejection.
“I think you can characterize this as a watershed event,” UNOS chief medical officer Dr. David Klaasen said of the Maryland transplant.
Still, Dr. Klaasen cautioned that this is only the first possible step in finding out whether this time around, xenotransplantation might eventually work.
The Food and Drug Administration, which oversees xenotransplantation experiments, has given the surgery what is called a “compassionate use” emergency authorization, which is available when a patient with a life-threatening condition has no other option.
Just last September, researchers in New York conducted an experiment that suggested this type of pig could hold promise for animal-to-human transplants. Doctors temporarily attached a pig kidney to a dead human body and watched it begin to function.
Robert Montgomery, who led that experiment at NYU Langone Health, said the Maryland transplant takes their experiment to the next level.
“This is truly a remarkable success,” he said in a statement. “As a heart transplant recipient, myself suffering from a genetic heart disorder, I am thrilled by this news and the hope it gives to my family and other patients who will eventually survive this breakthrough.”
The surgery, which took place last Friday at a Baltimore hospital, took seven hours.