Pig heart transplanted to dying man in breakthrough surgery was infected with virus, the report said


An American who died two months after receiving the first-ever human heart transplant from a pig may have contracted a swine virus infection, a new report says.

A delighted Bennett, 57, died March 8 at the University of Maryland Medical Center of unexplained causes after his condition worsened a few days earlier.

The 57-year-old underwent groundbreaking experimental surgery in January, which saw doctors replace his heart with one from a genetically modified pig.

Scientists had modified the pig to remove the animal’s genes, which could trigger hyper-rapid organ rejection, and added human genes to help the body accept the organ.

A few days after the operation, Mr Bennet’s heart was “working” and appeared “normal,” his doctors had said in a statement.

However, about two months later, his condition began to deteriorate and he died. It’s not yet clear if his heart had failed and if so, why.

A spokesman said in a statement released by the university in March that “no apparent cause had been identified at the time of his death,” adding that a full report is pending.

Mr. Bennett’s heart may have been infected with a swine virus called porcine cytomegalovirus, a preventable infection associated with devastating effects on transplants, the MIT Technology Review reported on Wednesday.

“We’re beginning to understand why he died,” said Bartley Griffith, transplant surgeon at the University of Maryland School of Medicine (UMSOM).

The virus “maybe was or could be the actor that started this whole thing,” added Dr. Added Griffith.

The pig whose heart was transplanted to Mr Bennet was reportedly raised by biotech firm Revovicor, which modified the pig’s genome to reduce the risk of rejection.

Scientists had determined in early March that in attempts to reduce the risk of infection, the donor pig was raised in a disease-free laboratory environment and screened for many known swine pathogens before being sent to the lab.

Although all pigs are known to have an endogenous swine virus, the researchers said they had not found transmission of this virus to humans or non-human primates in previous studies.

However, previous studies testing the techniques for pig-to-human transplants in baboons have shown that kidney transplants failed about four times faster when porcine cytomegalovirus was present.

Another 2020 study conducted on baboons had found that virus-free pig-to-baboon heart transplants could take longer than six months, while those with infected organs failed much faster at extremely high virus concentrations.

The study’s authors had said that the transplanted hearts had extremely high levels of virus, likely due to intentional inhibition of the baboon’s immune system for transplantation, or the lack of the pig’s immune system, which might have been better suited to suppressing the pig-specific virus .

The researchers also found that the high levels of virus in the recipient baboon caused transplant rejection by interfering with the production of immune system molecules called cytokines that protect against infection.

They noted in the study that a human receiving a similar heart infected with porcine cytomegalovirus may show “a similar reduction in survival time.”

Speaking to MIT Technology Review, Dr. Griffith whether Mr Bennett was affected by a similar syndrome previously seen in baboons given infected pig hearts.

“Although the evidence is lacking, there are definitely concerns that swine pathogens cause disease in humans,” Muhammad M. Mohiuddin, professor of surgery at UMSOM, said in March.

If a virus did indeed lead to Mr Bennet’s death, it could mean future transplants would require better screening procedures to ensure organs free of infection.

“Infectious disease complications are always a concern in the organ transplant field, whether it’s infections related to the recipient or the donor, which in this case, remarkably, is a pig,” Kapil Saharia, director of the Transplant Infectious Diseases Service of solid organs at the University of Maryland Medical Center, said in a statement earlier in March.

Revivicor declined to comment to MIT Technology Review and did not immediately respond to a request for comment from The Independent. Pig heart transplanted to dying man in breakthrough surgery was infected with virus, the report said

Fry Electronics Team

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