A historic pig-to-human transplant was conducted for a 57-year-old patient in Maryland, USA.  For the first time in medical science, doctors have transplanted a genetically modified pig’s heart into a human patient who was suffering from a terminal disease. The Maryland transplant marks a landmark step using a genetically modified pig’s heart that avoids the risk of immediate rejection in a human.

The patient, 57-year-old David Bennett, ineligible for a human heart transplant, was ready to undergo this highly experimental surgery. He was doing well three days after the transplant, said the Doctors at the University of Maryland Medical Centre on Monday.

The ‘Historic’ Transplant of Full Porcine Heart into a Human

The patient, David Bennett, had been in hospital for more than a month with terminal heart disease. He was deemed by doctors to qualify for a human heart transplant and was on the verge of dying.

As a last resort, the doctors sought emergency authorisation from the Food and Drug Administration to transplant a heart from a genetically edited pig. The FDA approved the transplant and the team’s proposal to use a drug to prevent Bennett’s body from rejecting the organ.

On Friday, the Maryland surgeons spent eight hours conducting this “historic” operation. On Monday, Bennett was breathing with his new heart while still connected to a heart-lung machine. However, he is still under monitoring to know if the operation has been a success.


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The Genetically Modified Pig as the Donor

While pig heart valve and skin are widely used in humans, it is for the first time a full porcine heart has been implanted in a human. The heart came from a pig engineered by Revivicor, a company under US ownership.

The Revivicor’s pig has undergone genome editing that removes molecules and retroviruses from its DNA to prevent immune rejection in the human body. Before this operation, Dr Griffith had transplanted pig hearts into 50 baboons over five years with survival times that exceeded 9 months. “If this works, there will be an endless supply of these organs for patients who are suffering,” said Dr Muhammad Mohiuddin.

A Bold Decision, Taken by the Recipient

Bennett, who has spent the last 6 weeks bedridden on a heart-lung bypass machine, said, “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”. Bennet’s transplant was not a part of a clinical trial. According to Dr Griffith, when informed about the highly experimental procedure, Bennett joked, “well, will I oink?” His bold decision was appreciated by the doctors and administrators.


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A Look into “Animal Rights”

This breakthrough pig-to-human heart transplant has been condemned by animal rights activists. People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) has reproached this as “unethical, dangerous, and a tremendous waste of resources”.

Animal Aid, a UK-based animal rights group, said, “animals have a right to live their lives, without being genetically manipulated with all the pain and trauma this entails, only to be killed and their organs harvested.”

However, Dr Katrien Devolder, a fellow in bioethics at Oxford University, said,

“Using pigs to produce meat is much more problematic than using them to save lives, but of course, that’s no reason to ignore animal welfare”, that is to “ensure they do not suffer any unnecessary harm.”


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The History of Animal Organ Transplant for Humans

The US faces a huge shortage of human organs donated for transplant that causes the death of more than 6000 patients every year. So, the research to use animal organs instead has been underway. But attempts at such xenotransplantation have high risk and mixed success. In 1984, a newborn in California, Baby Fae survived for 21 days with a baboon heart.

 

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