An oink-believable medical tale

He’s an ordinary 57-year-old man from Maryland in the US, but David Bennett’s name will go down in medical history: he’s the first person ever to receive a pig heart in a transplant operation. The New York Times reported that Bennett was suffering from a “life-threatening heart disease”; he “would have died without a new heart, had exhausted other treatments and was too sick to qualify for a human donor heart”. Enter an untested solution – the use of a genetically modified pig’s heart. 🫀

Doctors at the University of Maryland’s Medical Centre were given a special exemption by the Food and Drug Administration and granted emergency authorisation to perform the surgery. By Monday, three days after the eight-hour surgery, Bennett was “doing well”, said Dr Bartley Griffith, the director of the centre’s cardiac transplant programme. 

Why, you may be wondering, use a pig heart? Turns out that pigs have been aiding human health for some years; in an earlier article, the New York Times said pig heart valves were routinely transplanted into humans “and some patients with diabetes have received pig pancreas cells”! 🤯 Pigs are easier than our closer primate relatives to raise and they mature much faster than primates do. Griffith explained that pig organs could alleviate the US’s chronic shortage of organ donations. “There are simply not enough donor human hearts available to meet the long list of potential recipients.”

South Africa, too, could use a hand (or a trotter) on the organ donation front.  In 2019, according to the South African Organ Donor Foundation, there were 5000 people on the waiting list for organ transplants. But it remains to be seen whether Bennett’s transplant will be the start of a common, accepted trend – there are ethical and medical issues to consider, experts say. In the meantime, we bet Bennett is glad for the unusual help in saving his bacon. 🐷

This article appeared as part of The Wrap, 13 January 2022. Sign up to receive our weekly updates.