Pigs’ Hearts Save Human Lives

By Shlomo Maital

     About 3,500 people in the U.S. are waiting for a heart transplant, and many will wait more than six months. But some will die before a heart becomes available to them.  And some are so sick they will never qualify.

     Solution?  Porky Pig. 

     Background:  (from the Web):  “In 1997, Dhani Ram Baruah, a cardiac surgeon in Assam tried to transplant the heart and lungs of a pig into a patient. The patient died and Baruah was arrested for breaking the law governing human transplantation. Despite the fact that pigs provide pharmaceutical-grade heparin and heart valves for transplantations, whole organ transplantation between different animals usually fail due to genetic incompatibility. At that time, the genome of neither man nor pig was known.”

    Later, “a team looked at genes and protein domains that pigs and humans share.  ….. The researchers found the physiology of the two is 84 per cent similar at the genetic level.” 

    84% Not quite enough for ‘interchangeable’ pig and human parts.

     But – what if we could genetically engineer pigs, to make them far more similar to humans genetically?  Is this ethical?  Possible?

      Fast forward:  to a New York Times story, Jan. 10, by Roni Caryn Rubin:   

    “A 57-year-old man with life-threatening heart disease has received a heart from a genetically modified pig, a groundbreaking procedure that offers hope to hundreds of thousands of patients with failing organs.   It is the first successful transplant of a pig’s heart into a human being. The eight-hour operation took place in Baltimore on Friday, and the patient, David Bennett Sr. of Maryland, was doing well on Monday, according to surgeons at the University of Maryland Medical Center.“It creates the pulse, it creates the pressure, it is his heart,” said Dr. Bartley Griffith, the director of the cardiac transplant program at the medical center, who performed the operation.

    “It’s working and it looks normal. We are thrilled, but we don’t know what tomorrow will bring us. This has never been done before.”

         “Last year, some 41,354 Americans received a transplanted organ, more than half of them receiving kidneys, according to the United Network for Organ Sharing, a nonprofit that coordinates the nation’s organ procurement efforts.    But there is an acute shortage of organs, and about a dozen people on the lists die each day. Some 3,817 Americans received human donor hearts last year as replacements, more than ever before, but the potential demand is still higher.”

      “Scientists have worked feverishly to develop pigs whose organs would not be rejected by the human body, research accelerated in the past decade by new gene editing and cloning technologies. The heart transplant comes just months after surgeons in New York successfully attached the kidney of a genetically engineered pig to a brain-dead person.”

     “Researchers hope procedures like this will usher in a new era in medicine in the future when replacement organs are no longer in short supply for the more than half a million Americans who are waiting for kidneys and other organs.”

“This is a watershed event,” said Dr. David Klassen, the chief medical officer of the United Network for Organ Sharing and a transplant physician. “Doors are starting to open that will lead, I believe, to major changes in how we treat organ failure.”

      “Mr. Bennett decided to gamble on the experimental treatment because he would have died without a new heart, had exhausted other treatments and was too sick to qualify for a human donor heart, family members and doctors said.

    “His prognosis is uncertain. Mr. Bennett is still connected to a heart-lung bypass machine, which was keeping him alive before the operation, but that is not unusual for a new heart transplant recipient, experts said.

     “The new heart is functioning and already doing most of the work, and his doctors said he could be taken off the machine on Tuesday. Mr. Bennett is being closely monitored for signs that his body is rejecting the new organ, but the first 48 hours, which are critical, passed without incident.

       “He is also being monitored for infections, including porcine retrovirus, a pig virus that may be transmitted to humans, although the risk is considered low.

       It is richly ironic that two major world religions, Judaism and Islam, define the pig as ‘unclean’ and forbidden to eat.  Both religions value the sanctity of life.  Will their religious leaders approve transplant of pigs’ organs to save lives?   I’d love to sit in on that debate.