Dave Bennett, the Maryland man who received the first heart transplant from a genetically modified pig last week, continues to recover well, his doctors said late Wednesday.
“The new heart is still a rock star,” said Dr. Bartley Griffith, who led the transplant team at the University of Maryland Medical Center. “It seems to be reasonably happy in its new host … It has more than exceeded our expectations.”
Bennett, 57, is now off of the machine that kept blood circulating through his body for more than 45 days, including several days after the surgery. He is breathing on his own, and speaking with a quiet voice.
Griffith had planned to leave Bennett plugged into the heart-lung machine for another week or so — comparing it to “training wheels,” as the pig heart got used to its new environment. “But the heart was rocking and rolling and he was so stable that we elected to remove it,” he said.
In a video recorded by the University of Maryland Medicine, Bennett’s son, David Bennett Jr., said his father can’t wait to get out of the hospital and is grateful for the groundbreaking surgery that might give him that shot.
“My dad’s a fighter,” David said. “He was chosen to do this. He chose to do this.”
Fearful before the surgery
Researchers, including the University of Maryland School of Medicine physician-scientist Muhammad Mohiuddin, have been working for decades to develop pigs whose organs can be used to address the global organ shortage. Right now, more than 100,000 Americans are on a waitlist for an organ transplant and about 6,000 die every year while waiting.
More, like Bennett, never make the list at all. Bennett was not considered a good candidate for a heart transplant because he has often missed medical appointments and not filled prescriptions in the past. Years of heart transplant surgeries have shown that people who aren’t good at following doctors’ orders don’t survive long with a donor heart.
Bennett was also not considered a good candidate for an implantable device because he had uncontrolled arrhythmia, also known as an irregular heartbeat.
A Virginia-based company, Revivicor, raised the 240-pound, 1-year-old pig whose heart now beats inside Bennett’s chest.
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Ten of the pig’s 100,000 genes had been edited to make its heart more compatible with a human. The changes made it less likely that Bennett’s body would reject an organ from another species, prevented his blood from clotting as it passed through the heart, and kept the pig from growing too large or its organ from continuing to grow after the transplant.
Years of transplanting pig hearts into baboons helped the scientists identify the crucial genes, as well as determine medications to prevent immune rejection and ways to keep the heart as healthy as possible as it transitioned from pig to person.
Some people have ethical and moral problems with the procedure, which cost the pig its life. His son said Bennett did not, though he was fearful before the surgery and hoped someday to still be able to receive a human heart transplant.
In 2013, Bennett had heart surgery to implant a pig valve in his heart. That procedure, done for decades, is not considered an organ transplant because it does not involve a full organ and because all the pig cells are removed before it is implanted, so patients don’t have to take immunosuppressive medication.
‘A very emotional feeling’
University of Maryland Medical doctors breathed a sigh of relief when Bennett’s body did not reject the heart on the operating table or soon afterward, a condition known as hyperacute rejection. Until that point, it has been a major impediment to animal-to-human transplants.
They remain concerned about Bennett’s infection risk and the chance that his body will reject the heart — risks that occur with any organ transplant.
In a released video, Mohiuddin said he was touched when Bennett thanked him. A successful pig-to-human heart transplant “was great,” Mohiuddin said, but the primary goal was to save Bennett’s life.
That thank you, Mohiuddin said, “meant he understood what has been done. It meant he understood what he agreed to and what happened to him, and that was a very emotional feeling.”
Griffith said he also found Bennett’s thanks extremely moving.
“It just set me back on my heels,” Griffith said. “I should be thanking him for all he has done in terms of his willingness to participate and how much work he’s put into getting well and into cooperating with the plan.”
David said his father’s gratitude reassured him that his dad didn’t regret volunteering to be the first person to ever receive a gene-edited pig heart.
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“That provided a lot of peace of mind to me as the medical proxy, as his son that’s here supporting him,” David said. “I want it for him and I want it for the rest of the world, but he’s got to be willing to fight for it. So, it’s good to see that he’s doing that.”
His father still faces a long road to recovery. He’s been lying in a hospital bed since November, so he’s lost a lot of muscle and strength.
“To be honest, he doesn’t want to be here,” David said. “It’s hard watching him suffer, so I’m trying to find things to encourage him.”
David said he’s been telling his father how much other people believe in him and are praying for him, and reminding him that his dog, Lucky, is waiting at home.
Bennett’s very strong-willed and very private, David said of his father. But he’s also a generous man, who volunteered for the surgery so others could benefit, too.
“Regardless of what happened, he wanted to help people,” David said.
Contact Karen Weintraub at email@example.com.
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