Washington: In a historic first-of-its kind surgery, US surgeons successfully implanted a heart from a genetically modified pig in a 57-year-old man with terminal illness, a move that could one day help solve the chronic shortage of organ donations.
The patient, Maryland resident David Bennett, is doing well three days after the surgery, the university’s medical center said on Monday, as doctors who performed the operation revealed the transplanted heart was working normally and creating the pulse and pressure associated with the human heart. The surgery took place on Friday and took about eight hours.
Although the patient is still connected to a heart-lung bypass machine which was keeping him alive before the operation, doctors said the new heart is doing most of the work and there are no signs of rejection as of now. He is expected to be taken off the machine on Tuesday.
“We are proceeding cautiously, but we are also optimistic that this first-in-the-world surgery will provide an important new option for patients in the future,” Dr Bartley P. Griffith, the lead surgeon in the breakthrough achievement said, while foreseeing a solution to organ shortage crisis in the long run.
While some pig organs and cells, notably its heart valve and skin, have been used in humans before, this is the first time a full porcine heart has been transplanted into a human. The pioneer in this field of transplanting animal organs — called xenotransplantation — is Pakistani-American Dr Mohammed Mohiuddin, a graduate of Karachi’s Dow Medical College, who with Dr Griffith set up UMSOM’s Cardiac Xenotransplantation Program and was part of the surgery team.
“This is the culmination of years of highly complicated research to hone this technique in animals with survival times that have reached beyond nine months. The FDA used our data and data on the experimental pig to authorize the transplant in an end-stage heart disease patient who had no other treatment options,” Dr. Mohiuddin said, adding that the successful procedure provided valuable information to improve the potentially life-saving method in future patients.
Doctors had to go in for a porcine heart transplant rather than a conventional one because Bennett’s condition did not allow him to qualify for a human transplant. He had been admitted to the hospital more than six weeks earlier with life-threatening arrythmia and was connected to a heart-lung bypass machine, called extracorporeal membrane oxygenation (ECMO), to remain alive, the university said. In addition to not qualifying to be on the transplant list, he was also deemed ineligible for an artificial heart pump due to his arrhythmia.
He then consented to a porcine transplant even after being told of the risks. “It was either die or do this transplant. I want to live. I know it’s a shot in the dark, but it’s my last choice,” he said the day before the surgery. According to Dr Griffith, when briefed about the unprecedented nature of the procedure, Bennett joked, “Well, will I oink?”
Bennett won praise from doctors and administrators for his do or die decision. “We appreciate the tremendous courage of this live recipient, who has made an extraordinary decision to participate in this groundbreaking procedure to not only potentially extend his own life, but also for the future benefit of others,” Dr Mohan Suntha, President and CEO of the University of Maryland Medical System said.
The “historic” procedure took place on Friday, the University of Maryland Medical School said in a statement on Monday. While the patient’s prognosis is far from certain, it represents a major milestone for animal to human transplantation.