The death of a patient who underwent a pig heart transplant

The first person whose failing heart was replaced with a genetically modified pig heart in a groundbreaking operation died Tuesday afternoon at the University of Maryland Medical Center, two months after the transplant.

David Bennett Sr., who lived in Maryland, was 57 years old. Suffering from severe heart disease, he agreed to receive an experimental pig heart after being rejected from several waiting lists to receive a human heart.

It was not clear if his body had rejected the foreign organ. “There was no clear cause that was identified at the time of his death,” a hospital spokeswoman said.

Hospital officials said they could not comment further on the cause of death, because his doctors had not yet conducted a thorough examination. They plan to publish the results in a peer-reviewed medical journal.

Dr. Bartley Griffiths, the surgeon who performed the transplant, said hospital staff were “devastated” by the loss of Mr. Bennett.

“He proved to be a brave and noble patient who fought to the end,” said Dr. Griffiths. “Mr. Bennett has become known by millions of people around the world for his courage and unwavering will to live.”

The heart transplant was one of a number of ground-breaking procedures in recent months that have used organs from genetically modified pigs to replace organs in humans. The process, called xenotransplantation, offers new hope to tens of thousands of patients with impaired kidneys, hearts and other organs, where there is an acute shortage of donated organs.

Mr. Bennett’s transplant was initially considered successful. It is still considered an important step forward, because the pig’s heart was not immediately rejected and continued to function for more than a month, which is a milestone for transplant patients.

About 41,354 Americans received an organ transplant last year, more than half of them from a kidney, according to the United Network for Organ Sharing, a nonprofit that coordinates organ procurement efforts in the country.

credit…David Bennett, via The Associated Press

But there is an acute shortage of organs, and dozens or more people die on waiting lists every day. About 3,800 Americans received human donor hearts last year as an alternative, more than ever, but demand remains high.

Scientists have been trying to produce pigs whose organs will not be rejected by the human body, a research effort that has gained momentum over the past decade due to new gene editing and cloning techniques.

New York surgeons announced in October that they had successfully linked a kidney grown in a genetically modified pig to a brain-dead human patient, finding that the organ was functioning normally and producing urine for 54 hours.

In January, surgeons at the University of Alabama at Birmingham reported that for the first time they had successfully transplanted a kidney from a genetically modified pig into the abdomen of a 57-year-old brain-dead man. The kidneys work and produce urine for three days.

UAB surgeons said they hope to start a small clinical trial with live human patients by the end of the year.

Shortly after Mr. Bennett’s heart surgery in January, the Washington Post reported that he had a criminal record stemming from an assault 34 years earlier, in which he repeatedly stabbed a young man in a fit of jealousy, leaving him paralyzed.

The victim, Edward Shoemaker, spent two decades in a wheelchair, paralyzed from the waist down, and suffered from numerous medical complications including a stroke that left him cognitively impaired before he died in 2007 at the age of 40, according to his sister Leslie Shoemaker Downey, Frederick. , Maryland.

Mr. Bennett’s son, David Bennett Jr., who was a child at the time of the stabbing, said he did not want to discuss his father’s past, and emphasized that his father had been contributing to medical science by undergoing the experimental transplant and hoped it would “potentially save patients’ lives in the future.”

The heart given to Mr. Bennett came from a genetically modified pig supplied by Revivicor, a renewable drug company based in Blacksburg, Virginia.

The pig carried 10 genetic modifications. Four genes have been inactivated or disabled, including those that encode a molecule that causes an aggressive human rejection response.

Another gene was also disabled to prevent the pig’s heart from continuing to grow after it was transplanted. In addition, six human genes have been inserted into the genome of the donor pig – modifications designed to make the pig’s organs more resilient to the human immune system.

On New Year’s Eve, the Food and Drug Administration granted emergency clearance for the experimental surgery, which was performed a week later.

The transplanted heart initially performed well, and there were no signs of rejection for several weeks. Hospital officials said Mr. Bennett spent time with his family, underwent physical therapy and watched the Super Bowl.

But hospital officials said he was not discharged, and his condition began to deteriorate several days ago.

His son issued a statement thanking the hospital and the staff for their tremendous efforts on behalf of his father.

“We hope this story is the beginning of hope, not the end,” said Mr. Bennett. “We also hope that what has been learned from the surgery will benefit patients in the future and hope to one day end the organ shortage that costs many lives every year.”

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