A man in the US has become the first-ever recipient of a pig heart in a world-first transplant surgery.
Fifty-seventy-year-old David Bennett, who has terminal heart disease, said he would have died if he hadn’t gone through the grueling seven-hour procedure.
“I know it’s a shot in the dark, but it’s my last choice,” he said.
Pig heart transplant
The heart was from a genetically modified pig who had been bred without the genes to cause rejection, which is when a recipient patient’s immune system attacks the transplanted organ.
Bennett was deemed ineligible for a human heart, a circumstance that often means the patient is in poor health. Doctors claim he would have died if he had not gone through surgery.
Without it, he may have become one of 17 daily fatalities on the US organ waiting list. And this is why doctors at the University of Maryland Medical Center were given the green light to perform the surgery.
One of the medical professionals present at the surgery was Dr. Christine Lau. According to the BBC, Lau said: “People die all the time on the waiting list, waiting for organs.
“If we could use genetically engineered pig organs they’d never have to wait, they could basically get an organ as they needed it.
“…[Bennett’s] at more of a risk because we require more immunosuppression, slightly different than we would normally do in a human-to-human transplant.
“How well the patient does from now is, you know, it’s never been done before so we really don’t know.”
Genetically modified organs
It comes months after scientists managed to successfully transplant a pig kidney into a patient for the first time. Only on this occasion, they were pronounced brain dead.
This marked the first time the procedure had been completed without the human immune system rejecting it.
Pigs were already being genetically modified for procedures such as these. This is in the hopes humans will be able to receive organ transplants in the future.
Initial modifications focussed on kidneys, and early indications of success were noted when medical professionals managed to transplant them into baboons.
Ethical issues of animal-to-human transplants
Animal advocates remain cautious about celebrating animal-to-human transplants such as Bennett’s. It’s largely because the outcome involves rigorous animal testing to make ensure human safety.
Additionally, there are ethical implications in genetic modification, too. This is both in regard to the process itself, and the concept of raising an animal to kill them for organ harvesting.
Speaking directly on Bennett’s surgery, PETA proclaimed it “unethical, dangerous, and a tremendous waste of resources.”
PETA remains firm that organ shortages can be solved without animals, and that the US should instead implore an “opt-in” donation policy over an “opt-out.”
Alka Chandra is part of the organization’s laboratory investigation cases. They explained: “From an ethical perspective, PETA has always been opposed to the use of sentient animals as warehouses for human spare parts.”