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Man Receives First Pig Heart Transplant

A genetically modified pig heart was transplanted into a 57-year-old man from Baltimore, MD.

By:  |  January 25, 2022  |    551 Words

(Photo by Mustafa Ciftci/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)

A team of surgeons recently put a pig’s heart into the body of a man, in the first successful pig heart transplant to a human.

The operation was performed at the University of Maryland School of Medicine, and it was the first time an animal heart was placed into a human body, without the organ being immediately rejected.

No Other Option

David Bennett was extremely sick due to heart disease, and he was likely going to die unless he got the transplant. Bennett was ineligible for either a normal human heart transplant or an artificial pump. Before the surgery, Bennett 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.”

Dr. Barley Griffith, one of the surgeons, said, “this first-in-the-world surgery will provide an important new option for patients in the future.” There are not nearly enough human donor hearts for everyone who needs one, but Dr. Griffith is optimistic that this revolutionary operation could open new doors in the medical field and save lives. There are 106,657 people on the national transplant waiting list, and an average of 17 die each day waiting for an organ. Successfully transplanting animal organs into human bodies could save thousands of American lives.

How They Made It Possible

GettyImages-1347587967 Pig

(Photo by Robert Nickelsberg/Getty Images)

Human bodies and their immune systems would typically reject any pig organ. However, doctors and scientists made ten changes to the pig’s DNA, removing four genes and adding six human genes. Three genes normally cause a pig organ to get rejected by a human body, and the other gene was removed to prevent too much tissue growing from the donor heart. The six genes inserted into the donor pig should make the heart more acceptable to the human immune system.

Ethical Concerns

Many ethicists and scientists are not full supporters of xenotransplantation. Xenotransplantation is the process of putting live tissues, cells, or organs from an animal into a human being. The idea is not new, but it’s only recently that scientists have been able to put it into action.

Ethics is the study of what is morally right, and bioethics looks at the morals of medicine and biology. Dr. L. Syd M Johnson, a professor at the Center for Bioethics and Humanities at Upstate Medical University in New York, is hesitant to call this operation a success just yet. One of her concerns is the transmission of viruses from animals to humans. Dr. Johnson urges scientists to solve the organ shortage in other ways. She wants to focus on preventing the need for transplants rather than relying on xenotransplantation.

Others are concerned that using animals for medicine is ethically wrong, especially when it involves changing their DNA.

What Next?

To call the transplant a success, Mr. Bennett must have a good quality of life for at least a few months. It’s possible he won’t survive long with this new heart, but at least he has a chance now. And no matter how it turns out, researchers have learned a lot from this case.

Are pig organ transplants the future of human medicine – and should they be?

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