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TRENDING SCIENCE: Can you live with a pig heart?

Dying patient receives a pig’s heart in historic surgery.

Fundamental Research

Pigs’ organs are so similar to ours, and this has made them an exciting source of potential transplants for the scientific community. But just how feasible is a pig-to-human heart transplant? Until now, these transplants have mainly failed because patients’ bodies quickly rejected the animal organ. Thanks to new gene editing tools, the problems of pig-to-human heart transplants may be in the past.

Watershed moment in animal-to-human transplants

On 7 January, surgeons at the University of Maryland Medicine in the United States took 7 hours to successfully implant a heart from a genetically modified pig in a human patient. That morning, they removed the pig’s heart and put it in a special machine for preservation. This world-first case showed that an animal heart can survive in a human without being rejected immediately. The University of Maryland School of Medicine (UMSOM) released a short graphic YouTube video of the procedure. David Bennett, a 57-year-old Maryland handyman with terminal heart disease, was out of options. “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,” he explained in an UMSOM news release. “I look forward to getting out of bed after I recover.” His statement was made a day before the surgery. As of mid-January, he remains in stable condition, but it’s too early to tell if the surgery will be a success. The next few weeks will be critical. He’s being carefully monitored to establish how the new organ performs. If the trailblazing surgery is successful, pig organs could help tackle shortages in donor organs. “This was a breakthrough surgery and brings us one step closer to solving the organ shortage crisis,” Dr Bartley P. Griffith, who surgically transplanted the pig heart, commented in the same news release. “We are proceeding cautiously, but we are also optimistic that this first-in-the-world surgery will provide an important new option for patients in the future.” In 2020, about 21 patients died every day in Europe while waiting for an organ transplant. “This is the culmination of years of highly complicated research to hone this technique in animals with survival times that have reached beyond nine months,” stated Dr Muhammad Mohiuddin, Scientific/Program Director of the University of Maryland’s Cardiac Xenotransplantation Program. “The successful procedure provided valuable information to help the medical community improve this potentially life-saving method in future patients.”

Miracle of science a life-saving reality

“If this works, there will be an endless supply of these organs for patients who are suffering,” Dr Mohiuddin told the ‘Associated Press’. “This is significant for my dad … for the world,” the patient’s son David Bennett Jr told ‘Reuters’. “This is groundbreaking, this is remarkable and frankly, this is a miracle. I myself have some heart issues at 37 years old so my dad is certainly changing the future for even myself.”

Keywords

heart, transplant, surgery, pig, organ