Historic, First-Ever Porcine to Human Heart Transplant May Reshape the Medical Field For Years to Come

Ella Randazzo, Managing Editor

 

On Friday, January 7, 2022, a groundbreaking surgery, performed at a hospital in Baltimore, Maryland, may pose results that will reshape medical transplants for years and years to come.

Maryland resident, David Bennett Sr., recently having been diagnosed with terminal heart disease, faced a tough situation after being informed of his ineligibility for a human heart transplant. 

Dr. Bartley P. Griffith, director of the Cardiac and Lung Transplant Programs at University of Maryland School of Medicine (UMSOM), has spent years researching non-human animal to human transplants, and has even performed the transplant of a pig-heart into a baboon several times successfully. Griffith, head surgeon of the operation, was quite optimistic, and believed that, “This was a breakthrough surgery and it brings us one step closer to solving the organ shortage crisis.”

When proposed with the opportunity for this transplant, Bennett optimistically accepted, claiming, “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…I look forward to getting out of bed after I recover.”

This process of a non-human animal to human organ transplant, also known as a xenotransplant, has been used in the past, however, it has not always ended with successful results. Though the transplants themselves end successfully, the human body tends to reject the animal organ minutes, days, or even weeks after the operation. Bennett’s case was different though. This time, UMSOM experimented with genetically-editing the pig heart prior to the transplant, “knocking out” the three genes in a pig’s genome that stimulate a human’s rapid immune response, in addition to inserting six human genes that would aid in organ acceptance. This gene-editing prior to transplantation has so far been deemed successful, and the positive feedback and results of this surgery are a prime example of a complete breakthrough in the medical world.

Year after year, thousands of those in need of organ transplants, and who wait on organ-donor-lists go untreated due to a lack of accessibility to organs. If the long term results of this surgery are successful, so many more will be able to receive these needed transplants, as obtaining non-human organs is a much easier task than obtaining human ones. 

Ultimately, the pig-heart transplant has, and may continue to reshape the medical world of organ transplants for years to come. Dr. Griffith, lead surgeon of the transplant on David Bennett Sr., has been credited with successfully performing the intense surgery after decades of practice and research.