A Maryland man who was the first person to receive a transplanted pig heart died Tuesday, two months after the groundbreaking surgery at the University of Maryland Medical Center.
Officials at the Baltimore hospital said David Bennett began deteriorating a few days ago and was given palliative care. He was able to communicate with his family, the officials said.
The animal-to-human transplant, or xenotransplant, was offered to Bennett, a 57-year-old parent with terminal heart disease. He’d come to the hospital in October 2021 seriously ill and was placed on a lifesaving heart-lung machine but deemed ineligible for a conventional heart transplant.
“We are devastated by the loss of Mr. Bennett,” said Dr. Bartley P. Griffith, the transplant surgeon and clinical director of the University of Maryland School of Medicine’s Cardiac Xenotransplantation Program.
“He proved to be a brave and noble patient who fought all the way to the end. We extend our sincerest condolences to his family,” Griffith said in a statement. “Mr. Bennett became known by millions of people around the world for his courage and steadfast will to live.”
Bennett was offered the transplant of the genetically modified pig heart, an experimental procedure given emergency authorization Dec. 31 by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. He underwent the procedure Jan. 7.
Pig heart transplants are not approved by the FDA, but the surgery was done under the agency’s expanded access provision, otherwise known as “compassionate use,” because Bennett had terminal heart disease and other options were not available.
The heart performed well for several weeks with no sign of rejection, a common complication along with infection, organ failure and grafting failures. There was no obvious cause identified at the time of death, the hospital said. Doctors plan a thorough review and expect to publish their findings in a scientific peer-reviewed journal.
After the transplant, he spent time with his family and participated in physical therapy. Officials said he often spoke of wanting to go home to his dog.
David Bennett Jr., Bennett’s son, said his family was “profoundly grateful for the life-extending opportunity” by the hospital and staff.
“Their exhaustive efforts and energy, paired with my dad’s insatiable will to live, created a hopeful environment during an uphill climb,” he said in a statement. “Up until the end, my father wanted to continue fighting to preserve his life and spend more time with his beloved family, including his two sisters, his two children, and his five grandchildren and his cherished dog Lucky.
“We were able to spend some precious weeks together while he recovered from the transplant surgery, weeks we would not have had without this miraculous effort.”
Bennett Jr. also said the family “felt the prayers of the world” and asked that they be extended to the medical teams, the technology companies, research labs, grant writers and anyone innovating in the field. He added that he hopes in the future that such transplants could help end the organ shortage.
More than 40,000 people received a transplanted organ of any kind in 2021, according to the the United Network for Organ Sharing, or UNOS, the private, nonprofit organization that manages the transplantation system for the federal government.
But there aren’t enough organs to go around. More than 6,700 people have received an organ so far this year, but more than 11,300 were added to waiting lists, with kidneys being the most needed.
There were 3,817 heart transplants performed nationwide last year, and 3,414 transplant candidates are on the waiting list for a heart, UNOS reports.
Dr. David Klassen, UNOS’ chief medical officer, said he was saddened by Bennett’s death but said the transplant would advance the science involved in use of animal organs, especially because this one involved genetically modifying the pig heart.
He said the surgery represented years of basic research by a lot of scientists, including those at the Maryland medical school. That made the effort “far more purposeful” than simply transplanting an organ and hoping it worked.
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“Despite his death, this transplant remains as important step toward making xenotransplants possible for patients in need of a heart transplant,” he said. “This ought to remind us of the complexity of these approaches and the many challenges that will remain before these therapies can be developed and widely applied. I’m confident a lot will be learned from this transplant even though it was only one transplant.”
Transplantation, he said, has meant many people lead full lives, but there is more work to be done to make sure everyone gets an organ when they need one.
He said there is a lot of work underway to expand the pool of organs available for transplant. There are policy changes and research into ways to more equitably distribute the available organs, to ensure more organs are preserved and able to be transplanted, and to move them to potential recipients faster.
“Events like this transplant give people a lot of encouragement,” he said. “But for the time being, donations from human donors remain very important. So it’s important to emphasize that if people are interested and able they should register as organ donors.”
Also for now, animal transplants remain controversial and haven’t been undertaken often. A heart from a baboon was given to a baby in California in 1984, though the girl died about three weeks later when her body rejected the organ.
Doctors said they will use what they learned from Bennett.
“We are grateful to Mr. Bennett for his unique and historic role in helping to contribute to a vast array of knowledge to the field of xenotransplantation,” said Muhammad M. Mohiuddin, professor of surgery and scientific director in the Maryland xenotransplantation program.