The future of cardiac care changed on January 7 in Baltimore, Maryland. The first genetically modified pig heart was given to a 57-year-old-man with serious heart disease. The transplant operation is unprecedented.
It was reported in The New York Times as the “first successful transplant of a pig’s heart into a human being.”
The procedure reportedly took eight hours. The patient is David Bennett Sr. and was reported as in good condition on Monday, January 10 by surgeons at the University of Maryland Medical Center.
Bennett willingly chose to have this operation to save his life. Other treatments were not working and, according to the Times, he was not healthy enough to meet the qualifications for a heart from a human donor, per members of his family and physicians.
Bennett said the operation was his last choice and he wanted to live. Would we feel the same way in a similar situation?
As a heart patient, I’m always keeping an eye out for advances in heart health and cardiac treatments. I underwent open-heart surgery at the age of three in 1988 in Jackson, Mississippi.
There have been many follow-ups, check-ups, and tests since then. My issue had been the coarctation of my aorta, the major artery leading out from the top of the heart. Think of a kink in a water hose. The damaged section was cut out and the aorta reattached. I have Pediatric Cardiologist Robert Abney, MD, to thank for that.
Bennett was still assisted by a heart-lung machine last week as he was before the operation. So, the long-term quality of life is to be determined.
Bennett’s physicians stated that he was under observation in the event his body rejects the new organ transplant. The first 48 hours with no adverse reactions.
“It was either die or do this transplant,” Bennett said before the surgery, according to authorities at the University of Maryland Medical Center. “I want to live. I know it’s a shot in the dark, but it’s my last choice.”
The outlet reported that the heart which was put into Bennett’s body “came from a genetically altered pig provided by Revivicor, a regenerative medicine company based in Blacksburg, VA.”
Genetic modifications were made to the animal. Four genes were removed or “inactivated.”
Genes that include the aggressive human rejection response. A growth gene was also deactivated so the pig heart would not continue to grow after implantation.
Additional genes were inserted into the genome or gene map of the donor pig to modify the heart and make it more tolerable to a human immune system.
In 1982, Seattle dentist Barney Clark became the first human to receive a permanent artificial heart, a device known as the Jarvik 7. In an interview shortly after the implantation of the pump, Clark said he wanted to help advance science. He lived for 112 days on the mechanical organ.
The advancements in artificial organs and body parts are fascinating and intriguing. I harbor a small fear of dying of an aortic aneurysm, which is most likely to happen, if it does, at the repair site. Then again, I could die driving in Memphis traffic, so who knows?
I once saw a diagram in a physician's’ office while taking my grandmother to her appointment years ago. The diagram showed the damage caused by an aortic aneurysm. The aorta balloons out from weakened walls until it ruptures and the person bleeds internally.
Bennett is lucky that his name will go down in the annals of science for this medical first. The Times reported that there is currently an organ shortage. It’s an after effect of the pandemic with low organ donations and low transplant operations with many of them being deemed elective.
Let us remember during this strange time of healthcare and personal choice versus mandates and public health, that a pig saved a man’s life, even if for a short while.
*Matthew Breazeale is a journalist and has covered Mississippi news for over 15 years. He is a reporter for DeSoto Times-Tribune in DeSoto County