The first heart transplant from a pig to a human-made the news recently because the operation was successful early this year. However, the recipient died not long after, and the cause of the death might have been a preventable pig virus.
When David Bennett Sr received a genetically-modified pig’s heart to replace his own that was weak, lots of people weighed in. Some opposed the transplant based on the patient’s past with crime.
However, the operation went ahead, and Bennett emerged alive from the surgery room. But the transplant won’t last because Bennett died not long after in March, although he held the record of the first-ever heart transplant involving a pig.
Bennett seemed to respond very well after the surgery and was soon sitting up in bed. The transplant surgeon testified that Bennett’s new heart pumped blood as expected.
The cause of Bennett’s death was unknown at the time, but it seems the milestone transplant was marred by a virus named porcine cytomegalovirus. While the virus does not affect humans, it can damage an organ from a pig. Scientists have transplanted both infected and non-infected hearts into baboons, and the former lasted longer, as reported by a German study.
The pig’s heart Bennett got was supplied by Revivicor, which specializes in genetically modified pigs. The organs were meant to be non-infected but porcine cytomegalovirus is not easy to detect.
Revivicor did not respond to a request for comment from MIT Technology Review on the heart Bennett got.
The effect of the virus in Bennett’s death is important because if his demise had been due to the organ being infected and not because his body rejected the heart, the team that handled the transplant might not have to overhaul their strategy. They only have to work on detecting the virus before carrying out a transplant.
The most important takeaway would be that Bennett’s death could have been prevented, although the patient was fully aware the procedure could be risky. He was close to death before agreeing to be the pioneering patient for a pig-to-human heart transplant.