In a desperate effort to save the life of a 57-year-old man, doctors at the University of Maryland School of Medicine have come up with a medical breakthrough. Per Last Friday, surgeons successfully transplanted a pig heart into a patient as part of an experimental procedure.
In doing so, they showed that a genetically modified animal organ could survive and function within the human body without immediate rejection. Three days after the procedure, David Bennett, the individual who underwent the surgery, is alive and “doing well,” according to the hospital.
The Food and Drug Administration authorized the procedure on compassionate grounds. Bennett was ineligible for a traditional heart transplant and had been left with no other options. “It was either die or have this transplant. I want to live. I know it’s a long shot, but it’s my last choice,” he said in a statement before doctors operated on him.
Scientists have been trying to save humans with animal organs for decades. One of the most notable attempts took place in 1984, when doctors grafted a baboon heart into , a child born with hypoplastic left heart syndrome. The congenital disorder left her body unable to circulate blood properly. Baby Fae, as she was better known, survived for 21 days before her body rejected the transplanted organ.
According The New York Times newspaper, what sets this latter procedure apart is that doctors used a genetically modified heart to remove four genes that encode a molecule that causes the body to reject the orphan organ. They also inserted six human genes to make the immune system more tolerable to foreign tissue. Whether the experiment represents a breakthrough will depend on what happens next. Bennett’s body can still reject the pig’s heart. For the moment, however, he is alive, and doctors are understandably excited about what this could mean for patients.
“If this works, there will be an infinite supply of these organs for patients who are suffering,” said Dr. Muhammad Mohiuddin, scientific director of the xenotransplantation program at the University of Maryland School of Medicine. The Associated Press. That would be a dramatic change from the status quo. According , more than 100,000 people are on the national transplant waiting list and 17 individuals die every day waiting for an organ transplant.
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