Pig-Human Heart Transplants May Be the Future

Eric Sentell

Minnesota State Fair PigLaura Anderson

What do we call a human with the heart of a pig?

That's not an insulting rhetorical question.

It's a question we'll need to answer in the not-so-distant future.

Transplanting pig heart valves has been a common surgery for years, but for the first time, a human received a full "xenotransplantation" heart surgery.

Doctors at the University of Maryland Medical Center transplanted a heart from a pig into David Bennett, a 57-year-old man with heart failure who was ineligible for a human heart transplant.

The procedure saved Bennett's life, and it may save many more lives in the future. It also raises ethical questions about our treatment of animals.

Is it ethical to raise pigs for the purpose of harvesting their organs?

The idea feels icky, but we raise pigs for slaughter. What's the difference? Or should we use organs from pigs raised for slaughter?

That raises additional questions surrounding the gene editing required to make xenotransplants work.

Doctors have tried transplanting organs from other species before, but the recipients rejected the organs almost immediately.

The pig that saved Bennett's life underwent gene editing to eliminate sugars in its cells that cause rapid organ rejection when a pig heart is transplanted into humans.

Do you want to eat pork that doesn't have as much sugar because of gene-editing? Most people would rather raise gene-edited pigs specifically for organ transplants.

The xenotransplant was approved by the FDA under a "compassionate use" emergency authorization. Bennett was not eligible for a human heart transplant, and he would have died soon without some kind of intervention.

We should treat animals ethically. We also should treat humans ethically. When animal and human life conflict, many people will choose the value of a human life.

How's David Bennett Doing?

Three days after the surgery, David Bennett seems to be recovering well from his surgery. He's breathing on his own while hooked up to a heart-lung machine to ease the pig heart's acceptance by his body and immune system.

Time will tell if the procedure successfully extends Bennett's life or if it's a short-lived fix. Either way, science and medicine will continue working on using organs from other species to address the chronic shortage of organ donations.

8000 people die each year in the U.S. while waiting on the organ-donation list. Tens of thousands languish on the organ donor list, hoping for a life-saving, life-changing organ to become available.

Heart transplants tend to grab the headlines. I mean, you took my heart out of my chest, hooked up a new heart, and it worked?! Kidney transplants impact even more people, freeing them from dialysis.

Pig-human organ transplants may save and change many lives in the not-so-distant future.

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