In a medical first, doctors transplanted a pig heart into a patient in a last-ditch effort to save his life, and a Maryland hospital said Monday that he’s doing well three days after the highly experimental surgery.
While it’s too soon to know if the operation really will work, it marks a step in the decades-long quest to one day use animal organs for life-saving transplants. Doctors at the University of Maryland Medical Center say the transplant showed that a heart from a genetically modified animal can function in the human body without immediate rejection.
The patient, David Bennett, a 57-year-old Maryland handyman, knew there was no guarantee the experiment would work, but he was dying, ineligible for a human heart transplant and had no other option, his son told the Associated Press.
“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,” Bennett said a day before the surgery, according to a statement provided by the University of Maryland School of Medicine.
On Monday, Bennett was breathing on his own while still connected to a heart-lung machine to help his new heart. The next few weeks will be critical as Bennett recovers from the surgery and doctors carefully monitor how his heart is faring.
There’s a huge shortage of human organs donated for transplant, driving scientists to try to figure out how to use animal organs instead. Last year, there were just over 3,800 heart transplants in the U.S., a record number, according to the United Network for Organ Sharing, which oversees the nation’s transplant system.
“If this works, there will be an endless supply of these organs for patients who are suffering,” said Dr. Muhammad Mohiuddin, scientific director of the Maryland university’s animal-to-human transplant program.
But prior attempts at such transplants — or xenotransplantation — have failed, largely because patients’ bodies rapidly rejected the animal organ. Notably, in 1984, Baby Fae, a dying infant, lived 21 days with a baboon heart.
The difference this time: The Maryland surgeons used a heart from a pig that had undergone gene-editing to remove a sugar in its cells that’s responsible for that hyper-fast organ rejection. Several biotech companies are developing pig organs for human transplant; the one used for Friday’s operation came from Revivicor, a subsidiary of United Therapeutics.
“I think you can characterize it as a watershed event,” Dr. David Klassen, UNOS’ chief medical officer, said of the Maryland transplant.
Still, Klassen cautioned that it’s only a first tentative step into exploring whether this time around, xenotransplantation might finally work.
The Food and Drug Administration, which oversees such experiments, allowed the surgery under what’s called a “compassionate use” emergency authorization, available when a patient with a life-threatening condition has no other options.
It will be crucial to share the data gathered from this transplant before extending it to more patients, said Karen Maschke, a research scholar at the Hastings Center, who is helping develop ethics and policy recommendations for the first clinical trials under a grant from the National Institutes of Health.
“Rushing into animal-to-human transplants without this information would not be advisable,” Maschke said.
Over the years, scientists have turned from primates to pigs, tinkering with their genes.
Just last September, researchers in New York performed an experiment suggesting these kinds of pigs might offer promise for animal-to-human transplants. Doctors temporarily attached a pig’s kidney to a deceased human body and watched it begin to work.
The Maryland transplant takes their experiment to the next level, said Dr. Robert Montgomery, who led that work at NYU Langone Health.
“This is a truly remarkable breakthrough,” he said in a statement. “As a heart transplant recipient, myself with a genetic heart disorder, I am thrilled by this news and the hope it gives to my family and other patients who will eventually be saved by this breakthrough.”
The Jan. 7 surgery took seven hours at the Baltimore hospital. Dr. Bartley Griffith, who performed the surgery, said the patient’s condition — heart failure and an irregular heartbeat — made him ineligible for a human heart transplant or a heart pump.
Griffith had transplanted pig hearts into about 50 baboons over five years, before offering the option to Bennett.
“We’re learning a lot every day with this gentleman,” Griffith said. “And so far, we’re happy with our decision to move forward. And he is as well: Big smile on his face today.”
Pig heart valves also have been used successfully for decades in humans, and Bennett’s son said his father had received one about a decade ago.
As for the heart transplant, “He realizes the magnitude of what was done, and he really realizes the importance of it,” David Bennett Jr. said. “He could not live, or he could last a day, or he could last a couple of days. I mean, we’re in the unknown at this point.”
Mexico’s president on Monday announced that he has come down with COVID-19 a second time, as coronavirus infections spike in the country and tests become scarce.
President Andrés Manuel López Obrador wrote that he tested positive after sounding hoarse at a morning news briefing. He contracted COVID-19 the first time in early 2021.
“Even though the symptoms are light, I will remain isolated and only work from the office and hold online meetings until further notice,” the president wrote in his social media accounts. “In the meantime, Interior Secretary Adán Augusto López Hernández will take over for me at press conferences and other events.”
Two of the president’s Cabinet secretaries, the heads of the Environment and Economy departments, announced that they had tested positive in recent days.
Earlier in the day, the president told Mexicans to assume they have COVID-19 if they have symptoms. The number of confirmed cases last week spiked by 186%.
López Obrador claimed that the Omicron coronavirus variant is “a little COVID,” noting that hospitalizations and deaths have not increased at the same rate as the case count. However, experts say those are lagging indicators that may not show up for weeks after infections spike.
Reading advice posted on Twitter, the president said Mexicans with symptoms should stay at home, take paracetamol (acetaminophen) and isolate, rather than going out and trying to find tests.
Since Christmas, private pharmacies and the few available testing centers have been overwhelmed by long lines. The Twitter advice drew on guidelines from Mexico City health authorities and others.
Starting Saturday, private health insurers will be required to cover up to eight home COVID-19 tests per month for people on their plans. The Biden administration announced the change Monday as it looks to lower costs and make testing for the virus more convenient amid rising frustrations.
Under the new policy, first detailed to the Associated Press, Americans will be able to either receive home testing kits for free under their insurance or submit receipts for the tests for reimbursement, up to the monthly per-person limit. A family of four, for instance, could be reimbursed for up to 32 tests per month. PCR tests and rapid tests ordered or administered by a health provider will continue to be fully covered by insurance with no limit.
President Biden faced criticism over the holiday season for a shortage of at-home rapid tests as Americans traveled to see family amid the surge in cases from the more transmissible Omicron variant. Now the administration is working to make COVID-19 home tests more accessible, both by increasing supply and bringing down costs.
Later this month, the federal government will launch a website to begin making 500 million at-home COVID-19 tests available via mail. The administration also is scaling up emergency rapid-testing sites in areas experiencing the greatest surges in cases.
The insurer-covered testing would dramatically reduce costs for many Americans, and the administration hopes that by easing a barrier to more regular at-home testing, it can help slow the spread of the virus, get kids back into school more quickly and help people gather safely.
“This is all part of our overall strategy to ramp up access to easy-to-use, at-home tests at no cost,” Health and Human Services Secretary Xavier Becerra said in a statement. “By requiring private health plans to cover people’s at-home tests, we are further expanding Americans’ ability to get tests for free when they need them.