You’ve probably heard about the first successful human-to-human heart transplant. But what about the first pig-to-human heart transplant? While the idea of using animal organs to replace human organs wasn’t entirely new, we can thank the medical fraternity for successfully conducting a pig-to-human heart transplant in 2022.
Dr. Bartley Griffith, a heart surgeon at the University of Maryland Medical Center in Baltimore, was preparing to attempt the first pig-to-human heart transplant in history. The news sent shockwaves through the medical community and caused controversy around the world. David Bennett Sr, the patient who suffered from end-stage heart disease, had been looking to receive interspecies organ transplants for years. After receiving the transplant on January 7, he responded very well to treatment. However, after weeks of being treated with immunosuppressant drugs, his body began rejecting his new heart. Unexpectedly, deteriorating health forced him into cardiac arrest, and he died on March 8.
What Went Wrong (Scientifically)
Dr. Bartley Griffith responded that the transplant could have been successful if it weren’t for porcine cytomegalovirus (PCMV), a common virus in pigs. PCMV is harmless to pigs but can be deadly to humans, especially those with weakened immune systems—like David Bennett Sr., who had end-stage heart disease. Once PCMV was detected in Mr. Bennett’s new heart, his body started attacking it and ultimately rejected it altogether. So, could there be a chance of a successful transplant? As Dr. Griffith said, it would be feasible, if it was possible to eradicate all traces of PCMV from pig hearts before transplantation into humans. But as we know now, that’s easier said than done.
In a nutshell, animal-to-human organ transplants have been attempted for many years. It is also currently being tried by scientists and doctors around the world. However, few to none of these attempts have been successful so far. Why? Due to genetic differences and immune system rejection, which causes organ failure.