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The Baltimore Breakthrough: First Pig Heart Transplant to Human. More time to live

Updated: Jun 23, 2023

A revolutionary step for medicine. Will xenografts replace organs that the disease renders inefficient or that malfunction as we age?

Yesterday, in Baltimore (Maryland), an epochal turning point in human history took place: he was transplanted to a 57-year-old man, named David Bennet, who suffered from serious heart disease; a new heart that does not come from another human being, but from a genetically modified pig. The team of doctors involved in the 8-hour surgery was led by Bartley Griffith, who made the announcement to the New York Times: " The new organ creates a beat, it creates pressure, it is his heart". These excited, emotionally charged words mark a revolutionary step for medicine and for all humanity. Caution is a must but, to date, everything bodes well for the future.

In reality, this intervention, carried out in a "compassionate" mode as it is usually said when life expectancy is very low, has decreed an unexpected success, achieved with the sacrifice and study of years by researchers and doctors.

The patient was well aware of the risks of rejection despite the genetic modification of the animal's heart and before the surgery, he had declared: “ Die or have this transplant. I want to live. I know it's a leap in the dark, but it's my choice ”. David Bennet chose to live and to jump, while the team of Prof Bartley Griffith was preparing to change the course of our life, as it happened in 1967, in South Africa, thanks to Christiaan Barnard who carried out the first heart transplant.

What brought us here? Certainly, the courage to choose Bennet's life on the one hand and Griffith's team on the other, the ability to make the leap into the void, the stubbornness of so many doctors, and scientists who, years before the surgery, day after day, row after line, busily, they wrote this page and that they carried out their task, studying, working in the laboratories, in the operating theaters, in the university classrooms or in a lonely room, looking for a solution to advance even just a few meters a year.

After all, the word courage comes from “Cor-Cordis”, from the Latin: heart. It took heart yesterday to give so many sick people a life expectancy and a new perspective because xenotransplants, so-called transplants from organs of animal origin, will be able, in the near future, to replace organs that the disease has made inefficient, that accidents have demolished, or that due to old age they work badly.

The history of xenotransplants starts at the end of the nineteenth century, but they were abandoned in favor of the improvement of allografts, which are the ones that medicine has been successfully carrying out for decades.

However, the long waiting lists and the extreme difficulty of finding human organs to be implanted have made the hopes of many patients who, in the meantime, have died in vain. The transplantation of organs from pig to man, on the other hand, does not impose a limit on resources, except for the ethical problem of creating ad hoc pig farms, genetically modified to avoid rejection due to immunological causes.

There is also a limit to the risk of transferring the pathologies of porcine origin to the transplant recipient, however, the risk/benefit is clear.

Between living or dying, the leap is the only alternative.

This blog is translated from Dr. Antonio Giordano's original Italian blog on La Voce Di New York, original Italian blog can be viewed here.

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