In an experimental procedure, surgeons transplanted a pig’s heart into a terminally ill man, only the second such operation ever conducted. Two days after the surgery, the patient, a 58-year-old Navy veteran, was cracking jokes and able to sit in a chair, according to Maryland doctors.
This Navy veteran faced certain death from heart failure, but due to other health issues, he didn’t qualify for a traditional heart transplant, as reported by doctors at the University of Maryland Medicine.
Lawrence Faucette, hailing from Frederick, Maryland, expressed his newfound hope, saying, “Nobody knows from this point forward. At least now I have hope and I have a chance. I will fight tooth and nail for every breath I can take.”
While the coming weeks are crucial, doctors were encouraged by Faucette’s early response to the pig heart transplant.
Dr. Bartley Griffith, who conducted the transplant, expressed his astonishment, saying, “You know, I just keep shaking my head – how am I talking to someone who has a pig heart?” He acknowledged that the medical team feels both honored and under significant pressure.
Notably, the same Maryland team conducted the world’s first transplant of a genetically modified pig heart into another critically ill patient, David Bennett, last year. Unfortunately, Bennett survived for just two months following the procedure.
A significant shortage of human organs available for transplant exists, with just over 4,100 heart transplants performed in the U.S. last year, a record number. However, the limited supply means that only patients with the highest chances of long-term survival receive transplant offers.
Efforts to conduct animal-to-human organ transplants have faced decades of failure due to immediate rejection by the recipient’s immune system. Now, scientists are making new attempts using genetically modified pigs to create organs with more human-like qualities.
Recent experiments at various hospitals have involved testing pig kidneys and hearts in human bodies donated for research, with the aim of gathering knowledge for formal xenotransplant studies.
To carry out this new procedure on a live patient outside of a controlled trial, the Maryland researchers required special permission from the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) through a process reserved for specific emergency cases with no alternative options.
This involved submitting over 300 pages of documentation to the FDA, where the Maryland researchers argued that they had gleaned enough information from their previous attempt, even though the reasons for that patient’s death remain partly unexplained, to justify a second try.
Lawrence Faucette, a retired lab technician from the National Institutes of Health, had to acknowledge his understanding of the procedure’s risks before undergoing the pig heart transplant.
In a statement, his wife, Ann Faucette, expressed their modest hopes, saying, “We have no expectations other than hoping for more time together. That could be as simple as sitting on the front porch and having coffee together.”
What distinguishes this attempt from the previous one is that scientists only discovered signs of a pig virus in the heart after last year’s transplant. They now possess improved tests to detect hidden viruses and have adjusted medications accordingly.
Equally important, Faucette, although suffering from end-stage heart failure and running out of other treatment options, was not as close to death as the previous patient who underwent the procedure.
As of Friday, Lawrence Faucette’s new pig heart was functioning effectively without the need for supportive machinery, according to the hospital.
Dr. Muhammad Mohiuddin, the xenotransplantation expert on the Maryland team, expressed amazement, saying, “It’s just an amazing feeling to see this pig heart work in a human.” However, he emphasized caution, saying, “we don’t want to predict anything. We will take every day as a victory and move forward.”
While this type of single-patient “compassionate use” offers some insights into how the pig organ functions in a human body, it doesn’t provide as much data as more formal testing, noted Karen Maschke, a research scholar at the Hastings Center involved in developing ethics and policy recommendations for xenotransplant clinical trials.
The fact that the FDA permitted this second case implies that the agency may not be ready to authorize the initiation of a clinical trial involving pig hearts, Maschke added.
The pig heart used in the transplant, supplied by Revivicor based in Blacksburg, Virginia, has undergone ten genetic modifications, including the deactivation of certain pig genes and the introduction of some human genes to enhance compatibility with the human immune system.