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Hope and caution following pig heart transplant surgery

17/01/22

On Friday, January 7, David Bennett became the first person in the world to receive a transplant using a pig’s heart.

The transplant was considered the last hope of saving his life as he battles terminal heart disease. However, the long-term survival chances and future health implications for the 57-year-old remain unknown.

The operation proceeded following the granting of a special dispensation by the FDA, on the basis that Mr. Bennett would have otherwise died after being deemed ineligible for a human transplant due to his poor health.

Meanwhile, the pig used in the surgery was genetically modified to ensure that several of its genes were muted to prevent Mr. Bennett’s body from rejecting the new heart.

Undertaken at the University of Maryland Medical Center in Baltimore, USA, the eight-hour operation was ground-breaking. While hopes are high for the procedure, experts urge caution, emphasising that we are still a long way from it becoming an everyday occurrence.

Concerns have been raised that, while similar, pig hearts are not identical to those found in humans, and the risks of organ rejection remain high. Another issue surrounds the manipulation of the donor animals’ genes to ensure they stand an improved chance of assimilation into the human body.

A further matter for consideration is the unknown outcome of the surgery, with the medical team involved admitting they did not know if the endeavour would be successful, or if the patient’s prognosis would be favourable.

However, for many, the potential gains far outweigh the risks. It is hoped this will pave the way for the possibility of using animal organs to meet large waiting lists for human transplants, saving countless lives throughout the world.

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