In a first-of-its-kind event, a US citizen, David Bennett, was given a genetically modified Pig heart during surgery and survived the transplant. The 57-year-old Baltimore resident was given a pig heart as a last resort as he was in too much of a poor condition to wait for a viable human transplant. According to doctors, It was a “transplant or die situation” that made them take this radical decision.
This, surprisingly, is not the first case of an animal organ being given to a human during transplants, but the first time a patient’s body has survived the surgery and not rejected the organ. The Doctors at the University of Maryland Medical Center were given a special dispensation by the US medical regulator to move forward with the procedure, on grounds that Mr. Bennett - who has terminal heart disease - would otherwise have not survived.
The pig used in the transplant had been genetically modified to knock out certain genes that would have led to the possibility of the organ being rejected by Mr. Bennett's body. Dr. Christine Lau, chairperson of the Department of Surgery at the University of Maryland School of Medicine stated that "He's at more of a risk because we require more immunosuppression, slightly different than we would normally do in a human-to-human transplant. How well the patient does from now is, you know, it's never been done before so we don't know".
This type of Xenotransplant (heterogenous transplant) surgery is considered highly risky as the human body more than often rejects foreign elements in its workings. Even during Human-human organ transplants, there is always a risk of infections and diabetes, weight gain, hormonal imbalance, high blood pressure, etc.
Human-animal transplants have been previously done by doctors all around the world. In October 2021, doctors in New York announced that they had successfully transplanted a pig's kidney into a person. At the time, the operation was the most advanced experiment in the field. However, the recipient was shortly declared brain dead with no scope of recovery.
In India, Dr. Dhani Ram Baruah transplanted a pig’s heart into a 32-year-old man, Purno Saikia, who had a ventricular septal defect. The surgery lasted 15 hours and the operation was initially considered a success. Much to the doctor’s dismay, the patient died a week later due to multiple blood infections. The doctor was later arrested on charges of section 304 (culpable homicide not amounting to murder) under the Indian Penal Code (IPC).
Because the success rates of such transplants are so low, doctors actively avoid Xenotransplants and wait for a viable human donor to come along. But during the David Bennett surgery, doctors faced an organ shortage due to the increasing need for transplant surgeries. Medical professionals addressed the reluctance of people to sign organ donation forms or even donate blood given the global pandemic. This is why they had to opt for such an unconventional method of medical care.
Another aspect that has come forward with this case is a criminal record in the name of Mr. David Bennett dated 30 April 1988. David was convicted of attempted murder after he stabbed Ed Shumaker seven times in a bar fight and left him paralyzed. David suspected Ed of having relations with his wife and assaulted him in an inebriated state. He was sent to prison for 10 years and was ordered to pay 3.4 million dollars to the family of the victim, which the family has not yet received.
Edward Shumaker was confined to a wheelchair for the rest of his life until he passed away from a stroke in 2005. The family of Ed Shumaker voiced their dissent after seeing the press and the hospital staff treating David as a “hero”. They said that they wished the heart went to a more deserving recipient and not a criminal who ruined their lives.
The hospital staff replied to this statement by saying that they are sorry to hear about what happened to the Shumaker family, but they never let a person’s past determine the quality of medical care they receive. The hospital does not look at past criminal records but only at the medical ailment before treating a patient. The patient came in through their doors in a dire need of medical aid, and that is what they gave him, irrespective of his records.
Mr. Bennett was denied transplant eligibility at several hospitals for a variety of reasons. His medical record of heart failure and irregular heartbeat made him ineligible for some transplants, as did his habit of failing to follow doctor’s orders, attend follow-up visits, or take medicine consistently.
The medical community treats this surgery as a “first of many to come” as they feel they may have found a solution to tackle the increasing need for organs and the reducing number of donors. However, the viability of Xenotransplants works only with the sensitive task of genetic modifications to animal organs, which in itself is still a new field.
Through this article, I hope to provide awareness about the need for organ donations in today’s world and urge people to sign organ donation forms and donate blood as per convenience.
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