In early January, a man in Maryland made history as the first successful recipient of a gene-edited pig heart and has, thus far, been in good health, as reported by USA Today. For at least several days after the operation, the patient was able to breathe on his own, without a ventilator, though he was on an extracorporeal membrane oxygenation machine to assist with pumping blood.
The operation, led by cardiac surgeon Bartley P. Griffith, MD, FACS, at the University of Maryland Medical Center, Baltimore, represents a major step forward for the area of xenotransplantation.
The similarity of pig organs to human organs has been known for some time, and the gene editing was needed to prevent rejection, prevent blood coagulation in the heart, and keep the pig heart from growing too large to be usable for transplant.
Though it’s too early to determine long-term survival in the patient, successes already can be seen from both the surgical outcomes perspective and the medical technology perspective. In terms of the patient’s surgical outcome, this operation is the first time that a human has ever been kept alive by an organ transplant from a gene-tailored animal, and any continued survival can be seen as a success. From a medical technology perspective, the gene editing in the pig that allowed for the initial positive outcome fulfills at least some of the promise of this new technique.
Making this operation happen required a significant effort by the surgical team, researchers, the University of Maryland Medical Center, and medical leaders. As Dr. Griffith said in the article’s conclusion, “It’s been restorative to my soul to see people come together to save just one life. They understand the implication.”
A feature article will appear in an upcoming issue of the Bulletin as the story develops.