A Maryland man has lived for three days with a pig heart beating inside his chest.
The surgery, at the University of Maryland Medical Center, marks the first time a gene-edited pig has been used as an organ donor.
Dave Bennett, 57, agreed to be the first to risk the experimental surgery, hoping it would give him a shot at making it home to his Maryland duplex and his beloved dog, Lucky.
“This is nothing short of a miracle,” his son David said Sunday, two days after his father’s life-extending surgery. “That’s what my dad needed, and that’s what I feel like he got.”
In the nine-hour surgery, doctors replaced his heart with one from a 1-year-old, 240-pound pig gene-edited and bred specifically for this purpose.
Bennett is breathing on his own without a ventilator, though he remains on an ECMO machine that does about half the work of pumping blood throughout his body. Doctors plan to slowly wean him off.
Scientists have worked for decades to figure out how to save human lives with animal organs. More than 100,000 people sit on organ transplant waitlists, suffering terrible symptoms and side effects. About 6,000 of them die every year waiting in vain for someone else’s tragedy to provide them with a kidney, heart or lung.
Pigs have similar organs to humans. If those organs could be used in transplants, the waiting would end. People who would never be considered candidates for transplants – who never make it onto those transplant lists – could look forward to family dinners, playing with their kids or grandkids and simply going back to living their lives.
That’s the promise of so-called xenotransplantation. And the field took a major leap forward with Bennett’s surgery Friday.
“This is a truly remarkable breakthrough,” said Robert Montgomery, a transplant surgeon at NYU Langone and a heart transplant patient himself. “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.”
In September, Montgomery moved the work forward by becoming the first to transplant a pig kidney into a person, but in that case, and a subsequent surgery in December, the person had been declared brain dead. Montgomery kept the body functioning via machine for more than two days each time, showing that the human immune system would not immediately reject a kidney from a gene-edited pig.
The Maryland procedure “takes what we did in September of 2021 to the next level,” Montgomery said. “At that point, the race was on.”
Others in the field were supportive, if a bit envious.
“We’ve all been doing this for a really long time, and I’m sure it’s got to be fun to be first,” said Joseph Tector, a transplant surgeon and xenotransplantation researcher at the University of Miami.
Tector, who focuses on kidney transplants, said he’s waiting until he’s confident he can provide reliable, durable results, “so that when we do it, we can help everybody.”
Animal rights activists object to the use of pig organs. There would be more human organs available for transplant if health authorities assumed everyone was an organ donor unless they opted out, instead of the opt-in system.
Ethicists have fewer concerns.
Animal trials are essential to begin a new therapy in humans, said the Rev. Tadeusz Pacholczyk, director of education at the National Catholic Bioethics Center in Philadelphia.
Despite years of research, “there are sure to be many more twists and turns along the road of getting our immune system to play nice with implanted animal organs,” Pacholczyk said. “I suspect this is a first step on the journey from yesterday’s ‘scientifically unimaginable’ to today’s ‘barely achievable’ to tomorrow’s ‘standard of care.’”
Bennett, who has been relatively healthy most of his life, began having severe chest pains in October, his son said.