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Doctors in the United States transplanted pig hearts for the first time into two brain-dead patients. This was reported by the Wall Street Journal. The operation was performed in a teaching hospital in New York. The bodies were moved hundreds of kilometers within the city.
The patients were a 72-year-old man and a 64-year-old woman, both of whom died of a heart attack. The two people were declared brain dead, but were placed on ventilators. As a result, the heart and lung functions remained intact, while the brain did nothing functional. Relatives of the two donated the bodies to science.
The study lasted about three days. At the time, the organs were not rejected by the body, which is a major concern for doctors who practice such procedures. According to Ian Alwyn, professor of transplant surgery at Leiden University Medical Center, this is the first time a modified heart has been given to brain-dead patients from a pig.
However, three deceased patients actually received a pig brain, and a pig heart was also inserted into a surviving patient. Prior to that time, this research focused exclusively on primate organs.
The first recipient of a pig’s heart
According to the Wall Street Journal, researchers hope the transplants will provide more clarity about how modified pig hearts function in the human body. There is also a need to clarify how swine viruses are prevented from being transmitted to a human recipient.
In March, the first living recipient of a genetically modified pig heart died. The patient, 57-year-old David Bennett, had the organ inserted in Baltimore. Such an operation has not been performed before.
At first, the operation seemed successful, but after two months Bennett’s condition suddenly deteriorated rapidly and he died. It is assumed that Bennett died of the swine virus already in the heart.
“The investigation into such surgeries is continuing,” Al-Owain said. “You can also give an animal organ to both living and dead patients a brain.”
See photos of Bennett’s surgery in January here:
A pig’s heart was transplanted into a human for the first time
These studies have different goals. For people who are brain dead, according to Alwayn, you can learn more about whether the organ is functioning and how any germs and viruses that may be present develop. “You can also get more information about immune responses.”
It is safer than looking at live patients. But there is also an ethical objection, says the professor. “Patients who are brain dead can be observed in the intensive care unit for a few days, most weeks, but it is morally difficult to defend longer than that.”
This varies with living patients like Bennett. He had a serious arrhythmia and, according to the doctors, his chances of surviving without a transplant were nil. Plus, Bennett knew what he was up to, the hospital said.
In patients like Bennett, researchers are learning more about the long-term effects of the transplant. Al-Owain concludes that “types of research answer different scientific questions.”
Transmission of pig viruses during transplants presents a dilemma: it can lead to new types of infections in humans, but at the same time there is a huge shortage of organ donors in America, for example. Organ transplantation, or the use of genetically modified animal organs, may be a solution to that in the future.
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