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Pig Heart Transplant Patient Provides Hope to Medical Community

By Daniel Foster02 Mar 2022

Article Summary by Daniel Foster. Original Article by Karen Weintraub, USA Today¹

UPDATE: We regret to report that Mr. David Bennett passed away on March 8th. As the first person to receive a xenografted heart, David Bennett will be remembered through medical history as a courageous and pioneering individual. His own son said it best: “We are grateful for every innovative moment, every crazy dream, every sleepless night that went into this historic effort.”2

Though Mr. Bennett’s physicians have not yet released his cause of death, he lived for two months with the xenotransplanted heart. Mr. Bennett’s bravery—and the medical procedures which will be built upon it—will improve the lives of countless people who will follow him. Our condolences go out to all of Mr. Bennet’s family and friends. In a real and direct way, Mr. Bennett laid down his life so that others may live.

We thank Mr. Bennett for his gift to humanity, and we hope that, in their grief, his loved ones will find the sacred pride that is eternally theirs through this incredible sacrifice.

Aristotle said “Hope is a waking dream.” If so, then Mr. Dave Bennett is living a dream from which no one would want to wake. After repeatedly being denied a human heart transplant, he is currently recovering from a xenotransplant that may shape the future of medicine.  

For those with advanced heart disease and untreatable arrhythmia, like Mr. Bennett, transplant is often the only road to recovery. Three months ago, Mr. Bennett (age 57) began having severe chest pain. After two months of treatment, it became apparent that Mr. Bennet’s heart would soon fail. Unfortunately, Mr. Bennett was noncompliant with doctors’ orders, and was therefore rejected for transplant. (If a patient is unable or unwilling to follow medical protocol, they are considered unlikely to recover from such an invasive surgery.) But within every problem lies an opportunity.

Dr. Bartley Griffith is a man who seizes opportunity wherever he finds it. This time, he found an opportunity in a pig. Specifically, in its heart. Dr. Griffith is one of a growing number of researchers and surgeons who are pursuing xenotransplantation (the transplantation of life-saving organs from one species to another.) Pigs are physiologically similar to humans in ways that make them good donation candidates. Pig heart valves, for example, have been successfully transplanted to humans for decades. However, transplanting a complete, functional heart is a different matter.  

Researchers and clinicians like Dr. Griffith and Dr. Muhammed Mohiuddin (University of Maryland School of Medicine) have spent years genetically tuning pig organs for transplantation into primates. By experimenting with turning genes on and off, and splicing in new genes, Dr. Mohiuddin seeks to lessen the host’s immune response to the foreign tissue. To date, Dr. Mohiuddin has genetically modified pig kidneys for transplantation into baboons. Eventually, he hopes to seamlessly integrate foreign tissues into human physiology, allowing the recipient to return to their normal life without side effects or immunosuppressive drugs.

After some consideration, Mr. Bennett agreed to be the first human to enter this new medical frontier. The pig from which the heart was taken had been specially bred for that purpose. Several of its normal pig genes were turned off, and several human genes were added to help disguise the pig heart from Mr. Bennett’s immune system. The transplant surgery lasted seven hours.

Mr. Bennett is recovering well. So well, in fact, that he was removed from the heart assistance device a week earlier than planned.

According to Dr. Griffith, who performed the transplant surgery, “The new heart is still a rock star. It seems to be reasonably happy in its new host… It has more than exceeded our expectations.”3

If xenotransplant continues on this trajectory, it may usher in a new era of medicine. From all of us at Transonic, we wish Mr. Bennett a speedy recovery, and we congratulate not just Dr. Griffith and Dr. Mohiuddin, but all the researchers, physicians, and clinicians whose work has made this possible.

1. Weintraub, Karen. “Heart transplant from pig offers hope.” USA Today 11 Jan. 2022: A3. Print.

2. Weintraub, Karen. “First person to receive gene-edited pig heart dies two months after historic transplant.” USA Today 09 Mar. 2022: usatoday.com. Web. 17 Mar. 2022. 

3. Weintraub, Karen, “’The new heart is still a rock star’:” Man doing well after receiving first heart from gene-edited pig. USA Today. 12 Jan. 2022: usatoday.com. Web. 31 Jan. 2022.