In a medical first, doctors have traded a human heart for a pig’s. The experiment was a last-ditch effort to save a life. Doctors say the animal heart is functioning in a human’s body without immediate rejection.
David Bennett, a Maryland handyman, knew there was no guarantee the experiment would work. But he was ineligible for a human heart transplant—and he was dying, says his son.
“It’s my last choice,” Bennett said before surgery.
Most humans want to escape death—or at least delay it. But birth and death—ever since the fall into sin—are both parts of God’s plan. (Ecclesiastes 3:2) However, the Creator who made both pigs and people may intend Bennett to have more time ahead.
Xenotransplantation, or animal-to-human transplant, has been pursued for decades. The goal is using animal organs or tissues for life-saving transplants. Human donor organs are in short supply. (Read about a woman who gave a living organ gift in Love and Sacrifice.) A dearth of viable organs has driven scientists to study the use of animal organs instead.
Prior attempts at xenotransplantation at this scale have failed, mostly because patients’ bodies rapidly reject animal organs.
This time might be different. Maryland surgeons used a heart from a pig that had undergone gene-editing. Doctors “knocked out” four genes in the donor pig—ones responsible for hyper-fast organ rejection. Additionally, six human genes went into the pig’s genome (set of genetic information). These helped Bennett’s body accept the new organ.
Dr. Bartley Griffith performed the seven-hour surgery. Before offering the porcine option to Bennett, Dr. Griffith had transplanted pig hearts into about 50 baboons over five years.
Despite initial good results, the hospital has had to defend its decision to perform the transplant.
Reporters discovered Bennett has a criminal past. Bennett was charged with a stabbing 34 years ago. Tragically, the incident left a young man paralyzed. Bennett was incarcerated for six years. He was released in 1994.
The University of Maryland Medical Center says doctors must provide the best care for every patient regardless of background. Medical staff do not get to play judge or jury.
David Bennett, Jr., won’t discuss his father’s old life. He hopes to focus on “my father’s wish to contribute to the science and potentially to save patient lives.”
The pig heart transplant “brings us one step closer to solving the organ shortage crisis,” says Griffith. “We are proceeding cautiously. But we are also optimistic that this first-in-the-world surgery will provide an important new option for patients in the future.”
Why? God appoints a time for birth and death for every living thing, and sometimes He may allow use of parts of His creation in marvelous ways to preserve or prolong human life.