US surgeons made medical history by transplanting a pig heart into a human and the patient has survived three days so far, doctors said Monday.
The transplant, conducted at the University of Maryland Medical Center, was a desperate highly-experimental operation agreed to by recipient David Bennett, 57, because he was dying and there was no other choice available, Bennett’s son told the Associated Press.
“It was either die or do this transplant,” Bennett said in a statement the day prior to the operation. “I want to live. I know it’s a shot in the dark, but it’s my last choice,”
The pioneering transplant may open the door to future use of animal rather than human organs. The latter are in short supply from donors.
“If this works, there will be an endless supply of these organs for patients who are suffering,” said Dr. Muhammad Mohiuddin, scientific director of the university’s animal-to-human transplant program.
There is a track record on animal organ transplants into humans — it’s called xenotransplantation — and it is not good. For example, in 1984, a baboon heart was transplanted into an infant and the baby lived for only 21 days.
But surgeons said this time, a gene-editing step was taken to remove sugar from the cells. The sugar is the culprit for rapid rejection of the animal organ by the human body.
The American Food and Drug Administration, which must OK xenotransplantation surgeries, gave the go-ahead under “compassionate use.” In other words, the patient was doomed without the transplant.
It is being hailed as a quantum leap forward, moving the bar after doctors in New York attached a pig liver temporarily to a cadaver last September and watched it function. Dr. Robert Montgomery led that operation, and he has high hopes after the Maryland success.
“This is a truly remarkable breakthrough,” Montgomery said in a statement. “As a heart transplant recipient myself with a genetic heart disorder, I am thrilled by this news and the hope it gives to my family and other patients who will eventually be saved by this breakthrough.”