In a desperate attempt to save the life of a 57-year-old man, doctors at the University of Maryland School of Medicine have achieved a medical first. According to The Associated Press, surgeons successfully transplanted a pig heart into a patient last Friday as part of an experimental procedure.
In doing so, they showed that a genetically modified animal organ could survive and function in the human body without immediate rejection. Three days after the procedure, David Bennett, the person who had the surgery, is alive and “is doing well,” according to the hospital.
The Food and Drug Administration has compassionately approved the procedure. Bennett was not eligible for a traditional heart transplant and had no other options. “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 in a statement before the doctors operated on him.
Scientists have been trying to save people with animal organs for decades. One of the most notable attempts came in 1984 when doctors grafted a baboon heart into Stephanie Fae Beauclair, a baby born with hypoplastic left heart syndrome. Due to the congenital condition, her body was unable to properly circulate the blood. Baby Fae, as she was better known, survived for 21 days before her body finally rejected the transplanted organ.
What makes this latest procedure different, according to The New York Times, is that doctors used a heart that had been genetically modified to delete four genes that code for a molecule that causes the body to reject the orphan organ. They also added six human genes to help the immune system tolerate the foreign tissue better. Whether the experiment is a breakthrough depends on what happens next. Bennett’s body may still reject the pig’s heart. For now, though, he’s still alive, and doctors are understandably excited about what this could mean for patients.
“If this works, there will be an endless supply of these organs for patients who are suffering,” Dr. Muhammad Mohiuddin, scientific director of the xenotransplantation program at the University of Maryland School of Medicine, told The Associated Press. That would be a dramatic change from the status quo. More than 100,000 people are on the national transplant waiting list, according to the Health Resources and Services Administration, and 17 people die every day while waiting for an organ transplant.
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