The first person to have his failing heart replaced with that of a genetically altered pig in groundbreaking surgery died Tuesday afternoon at the University of Maryland Medical Center, two months after the transplant operation.
David Bennett Sr., who lived in Maryland, was 57. He had severe heart disease and had agreed to have the trial pig heart after being rejected from several waiting lists to get a human heart.
It was unclear whether his body had rejected the foreign organ. “No clear cause had been identified at the time of his death,” a hospital spokeswoman said.
Hospital officials said they could not comment on the cause of death as his doctors had yet to conduct a thorough investigation. They plan to publish the results in a peer-reviewed medical journal.
dr. Bartley Griffith, 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 very end,” said Dr. Griffith. “Mr. Bennett was known by millions of people around the world for his courage and steadfast will to live.”
The heart transplant was one of the groundbreaking procedures in recent months, using organs from genetically modified pigs to replace organs in humans. The process, called xenotransplantation, offers new hope for tens of thousands of patients with diseased kidneys, hearts and other organs, as there is an acute shortage of donated organs.
Read more about organ transplants
Mr. Bennett’s transplant was initially considered successful. It is still considered an important step forward, as the pig’s heart was not immediately shed and continued to function for over a month, reaching a crucial milestone for transplant patients.
About 41,354 Americans received an organ transplant last year, more than half of them kidneys, according to the United Network for Organ Sharing, a nonprofit organization that coordinates organ procurement efforts in the country.
But there is a dire shortage of organs and dozens or more people die on waiting lists every day. About 3,800 Americans received human donor hearts as replacements last year, more than ever before, but demand remains high.
Scientists have attempted to produce pigs whose organs would not be rejected by the human body, a research effort that has gained momentum over the past decade due to new technologies for gene editing and cloning.
New York surgeons announced in October that they had successfully attached a kidney grown in a genetically modified pig to a brain-dead human patient, finding that the organ worked normally and produced urine for 54 hours.
In January, surgeons at the University of Alabama at Birmingham reported that they had successfully transplanted kidneys for the first time from a genetically modified pig into the abdomen of a 57-year-old brain-dead man. The kidneys were functioning and producing urine for three days.
UAB surgeons said they hoped to start a small clinical trial on 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 ago in which he repeatedly stabbed a young man in a fit of jealousy, leaving him paralyzed.
The victim, Edward Shumaker, spent twenty years in a wheelchair, was paralyzed from the waist down and suffered numerous medical complications, including a stroke that left him cognitively disabled before dying in 2007 at the age of 40, according to his sister, Leslie. Shumaker Downey, of Frederick, Md.
Mr. Bennett’s son, David Bennett Jr., who was a child at the time of the stabbing, has said he does not want to talk about his father’s past, stressing that his father contributed to medical science through the experimental work. undergoing a transplant and hoped to “potentially save patients’ lives in the future”.
The heart given to Mr. Bennett came from a genetically altered pig supplied by Revvivicor, a regenerative medicine company based in Blacksburg, Virginia.
The pig carried 10 genetic modifications. Four genes were turned off or inactivated, including one encoding a molecule that triggers an aggressive human rejection response.
Another gene was also inactivated to prevent the pig’s heart from continuing to grow after it was implanted. In addition, six human genes were inserted into the donor pig’s genome — modifications intended to make the pig’s organs more tolerable to the human immune system.
On New Year’s Eve, the Food and Drug Administration granted an emergency permit 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. Mr. Bennett spent time with his family, did physical therapy and watched the Super Bowl, hospital officials said.
But he was not discharged, and his condition began to deteriorate several days ago, hospital officials said.
His son released a statement thanking the hospital and staff for their exhaustive efforts on behalf of his father.
“We hope this story can be the beginning of hope and not the end,” said Mr. Bennett. “We also hope that what has been learned from his surgery will benefit future patients and hopefully one day end the organ shortage that takes so many lives every year.”