David Bennett, the recipient of the first-ever “successful” pig heart transplant, has died. Two months after the surgery that shocked the world, Bennet’s doctors announced his death.
On Jan 7, Bennett — who suffered from heart failure and an irregular heartbeat — became the first person to ever successfully receive a genetically modified pig heart transplant in a historic 9-hour surgery.
The first-of-its-kind procedure saved his life and offered hope to others on organ transplant waiting lists, according to doctors at the University of Maryland Medical Center.
Bennett died on Tuesday, Mar 8, the University of Maryland medical center said, adding that he was able to communicate with his family during his final hours.
Bennett’s doctors hailed him as a “brave man” who had made a big contribution to advancing medical science by taking part in the surgery.
The hospital did not provide an exact cause of death but said his condition had worsened in recent days. Bennett’s son, David Bennett Jr, said his father knew the first-of-its-kind operation might not work but was grateful to the medical community for such innovation. He had called the procedure “a miracle.”
Despite Bennett’s death, the operation is still hailed as a milestone for xenotransplantation—the transfer of organs from other species to human patients. Prior to this groundbreaking operation, the closest doctors got to successful cross-species transplants were in transplanting modified pig organs into already brain dead patients – just to test the theory. Bennett’s was the first time that such a pig-to-human organ transplant was used to actually sustain a life – even if it was just for a couple of months.
The operation itself received exceptional authorization from the Food and Drug Administration under a provision which lets doctors use experimental treatments as a matter of last resort.
The scientific director at the University of Maryland’s animal-to-human transplant program, Dr. Muhammad Mohiuddin, paid tribute to Bennett. “Mr. Bennett was a brave man. Without his contribution, we couldn’t have done this procedure. He was brave enough to donate his body to science and to accept this pig heart, which many would not. We are grateful to his family who also supported during this long survival of two months.”
Doctors for decades have sought to one day use animal organs for life-saving transplants. Pigs have long been used in human medicine, including pigskin grafts and implantation of pig heart valves. But transplanting entire organs is much more complex than using highly processed tissue.
Prior attempts at xenotransplantation have failed largely because patients’ bodies rapidly rejected the animal organ.
Bennett survived significantly longer because doctors had “gene-edited” the pig heart to make it more compatible with the human immune system. Prior to Bennet, the last milestone in xenotransplantation was when Baby Fae, a dying California infant, lived 21 days with a baboon’s heart in 1984.
A big next question is whether scientists have learned enough from Bennett’s experience and some other recent experiments with gene-edited pig organs to persuade the FDA to allow a clinical trial, possibly with an organ such as a kidney that is not immediately fatal if it fails.
The need for another source of organs is huge. More than 41,000 transplants were performed in the US last year, a record – including about 3,800 heart transplants. But more than 106,000 people remain on the national waiting list, thousands die every year before getting an organ, and thousands more never even get added to the list, considered too much of a long shot.
“We are grateful for every innovative moment, every crazy dream, every sleepless night that went into this historic effort,” David Bennett Jr said in a statement released by the hospital. “We hope this story can be the beginning of hope and not the end.”