Man Who Received First Pig Heart Transplant Has Died

David Bennett, 57, made it 2 months with the heart
By Newser Editors and Wire Services
Posted Mar 9, 2022 9:20 AM CST
Man Who Received First Pig Heart Transplant Has Died
In this photo, members of the surgical team show the pig heart for transplant into patient David Bennett in Baltimore on Jan. 7, 2022.   (Mark Teske/University of Maryland School of Medicine via AP, File)

(Newser) – The first person to receive a heart transplant from a pig has died, two months after the groundbreaking experiment, the Maryland hospital that performed the surgery announced Wednesday. David Bennett, 57, died Tuesday at the University of Maryland Medical Center. Doctors didn't give an exact cause of death, saying only that his condition had begun deteriorating several days earlier. Bennett, a handyman from Hagerstown, Md., was a candidate for this newest attempt only because he otherwise faced certain death—ineligible for a human heart transplant, bedridden and on life support, and out of other options.

The FDA had allowed the dramatic Maryland experiment under "compassionate use" rules for emergency situations. Bennett's doctors said he had heart failure and an irregular heartbeat, plus a history of not complying with medical instructions. He was deemed ineligible for a human heart transplant that requires strict use of immune-suppressing medicines. After the Jan. 7 operation, Bennett's son told the AP his father knew there was no guarantee it would work.

Prior attempts at such transplants—or xenotransplantation—have failed largely because patients' bodies rapidly rejected the animal organ. This time, the Maryland surgeons used a heart from a gene-edited pig: Scientists had modified the animal to remove pig genes that trigger the hyperfast rejection and add human genes to help the body accept the organ. One next question is whether scientists have learned enough from Bennett's experience and some other recent experiments with gene-edited pig organs to persuade the FDA to allow a clinical trial—possibly with an organ such as a kidney that isn't immediately fatal if it fails.

Bennett's son praised the hospital for offering the last-ditch experiment, saying the family hoped it would help further efforts to end the organ shortage. "We are grateful for every innovative moment, every crazy dream, every sleepless night that went into this historic effort," David Bennett Jr. said in a statement released by the University of Maryland School of Medicine. "We hope this story can be the beginning of hope and not the end." More than 106,000 people remain on the national waiting list, thousands die every year before getting an organ, and thousands more never even get added to the list, considered too much of a long shot. (Read more heart transplants stories.)

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