The Heart of a Pig Was Successfully Transplanted Into a Human

Andrei Tapalaga
Pig that has been breeded with some genetics similar to humansLucia Macedo/Unsplash

For the first time, a human has received through transplant a pig’s heart. The procedure of transplanting animal organs to humans is called xenotransplantation and the term had been created about 70 years ago when the first xenotransplantation was attempted. 

There are hundreds of thousands of patients with various heart diseases that are waiting on a long list to receive a human heart. It is sad to say that most of them pass away before receiving a new heart. Last year for example only 3,817 people within America received human donor hearts, yet the list is filled with thousands of patients waiting. 

The man with a pig’s heart 

A 57-year-old man named David Bennet was in the same boat with heart diseases that could not be cured, so the only solution was a transplant. Bennet was hospitalized at the University of Maryland Medical Center where doctors have told him that his chances to receive a donor heart in time are very slim. Despite the desperate necessity, the transplant list follows a “human selection” criterion where the young are chosen first. 

However, scientists at the University of Maryland Medical Center have been working with a company named “Revivicor” in order to grow a genetically engineered heart. The company is looking to solve problems such as donor organ shortage with futurist solutions. The organs of a pig are compatible with the human organism, however, the immune system within the human organism would see an animal's organ as a foreign object, and therefore it would not accept the organ. 

In order for the human organism to accept the pig’s heart, the pig itself had 10 genes modified in order to boost the chance of acceptance in the human body. Four of those were inactivated as they were the ones causing an aggressive immune response within the human body. The other six are actually human genes that have been inserted into the genome of the pig in order to force the heart to be accepted by the human organism. 

When Bennet was told about this last resort he accepted it with quite some humor, despite the low chances that have been presented. 

“I said, ‘We can’t give you a human heart; you don’t qualify. But maybe we can use one from an animal, a pig,” Dr. Griffith recalled. “It’s never been done before, but we think we can do it.’” “I wasn’t sure he was understanding me,” Dr. Griffith added. “Then he said, ‘Well, will I oink?’”
Dr. Bartley Griffith, left, with David Bennett Sr. after the surgeryUniverity of Maryland School of Medicine

The surgery took place on the 7th of January 2022. Before the surgery, Bennet was put on medication that was surprising to his immune system in order to raise the chances of acceptance even higher. The heart was transplanted just like a normal human heart and connected to Bennet’s body. 

From an exclusive interview with Dr. Bartley Griffith taken by The New York Times, the surgeons said that despite Bennet being on a heart-lung bypass machine supporting his recovery, the new heart does most of the work and seems to be holding up well. Bennet’s body has successfully accepted the pig’s heart. Taking into consideration that the life span of a pig is between 15 to 20 years, the longest Bennet would be able to live is till the age of 77. However, because this is a genetically altered heart it could be incentivized by the human organism to live longer. 

Dr. Bartley Griffith has made the history books by becoming the first surgeon to transplant a pig’s heart into a human body. This procedure however has been in the making since 2015 when Revivicor announced that they have been breeding pigs that have some genetic similarities to humans. Only 7 years ago their aims have been criticized by the public, saying that this was not sustainable as people didn’t have faith in xenotransplantation because of 70 years of failed attempts. 

Here we are today living in this era where the medical industry is surpassing what was once seen as impossible. 

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