The second pig heart transplant saves a dying man: “Now I have hope”

WASHINGTON — Surgeons have transplanted a pig’s heart into a dying man in an attempt to prolong his life; He is only the second patient to undergo such an experimental feat.

Two days later, the man was making jokes and could sit in a chair, Maryland doctors said Friday.

The 58-year-old Navy veteran faced almost certain death from heart failure, but other health problems meant he was ineligible for a traditional heart transplant, according to doctors at the Medical University of Maryland.

“No one knows as of right now. At least now I have hope and I have a chance,” Lawrence Faucette, of Frederick, Maryland, said in a video recorded by the hospital before Wednesday’s operation. “I will fight tooth and nail for every breath I can take.”

While the next few weeks will be critical, doctors were delighted with Faucette’s early response to the pig’s organ.

“You know, I keep shaking my head: how can I talk to someone who has the heart of a pig?” Dr. Bartley Griffith, who performed the transplant, told The Associated Press.

He said doctors feel “a great privilege but, you know, a lot of pressure.”

The same Maryland team last year performed the world’s first transplant of a genetically modified pig heart into another dying man, David Bennett, who survived only two months.

Professors at the University of Maryland School of Medicine (UMSOM) perform surgery on Lawrence Faucette of Frederick, Maryland.UMSOM
Surgeons have transplanted a pig's heart into a dying man: the second patient to undergo this experimental procedure.Surgeons transplanted a pig’s heart into a dying man – the second patient to undergo the experimental procedure.AP
“No one knows as of right now.  At least now I have hope and a chance,” said Navy veteran Lawrence Faucette of Frederick, Maryland.  He is shown in the hospital with his wife, Ann.“No one knows as of right now. At least now I have hope and a chance,” said Navy veteran Lawrence Faucette. He appears at the hospital with his wife, Ann.AP

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There is a huge shortage of donated human organs for transplants. Last year, there were just over 4,100 heart transplants in the United States, a record number, but supply is so scarce that only patients with the best chance of long-term survival are offered one.

Attempts to transplant organs from animals to humans have failed for decades, as people’s immune systems immediately destroyed the foreign tissue. Now scientists are trying again to use genetically modified pigs to make their organs more like humans.

Recently, scientists at other hospitals have tested pig kidneys and hearts in donated human bodies, hoping to learn enough to begin formal studies of so-called xenotransplants.

To conduct this new attempt on a live patient outside of a rigorous trial, the Maryland researchers needed special permission from the Food and Drug Administration, under a process reserved for certain emergency cases with no other options.

It took more than 300 pages of documents filed with the FDA, but the Maryland researchers argued that they had learned enough from their first attempt last year (even though the patient died for reasons not fully understood) that they had sense to try again.

Surgeons perform the pig heart transplant at the University of Maryland School of Medicine hospital in Baltimore, Maryland.Surgeons perform pig heart transplant at the University of Maryland School of Medicine hospital in Baltimore, Maryland.AP

And Faucette, who retired as a laboratory technician at the National Institutes of Health, had to admit that he understood the risks of the procedure.

In a statement, his wife, Ann Faucette, said: “We have no expectations other than to spend more time together. “That could be as simple as sitting on the porch and having coffee together.”

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What’s different this time: Only after last year’s transplant did scientists discover signs of a porcine virus lurking inside the heart, and now they have better tests to look for hidden viruses.

They also made some changes to the medication.

Possibly most importantly, while Faucette has end-stage heart failure and had no other options, he was not as close to death as the previous patient.

Surgeons prepare the pig heart for transplant.Surgeons prepare pig heart for transplant.UMSOM

On Friday, his new heart was functioning well without any supporting machinery, the hospital said.

“It’s just an incredible feeling to see this pig heart function in a human being,” said Dr. Muhammad Mohiuddin, a xenotransplantation expert on the Maryland team.

But he warned that “we don’t want to predict anything. We will take each day as a victory and move forward.”

This type of “compassionate use” in a single patient can provide some information about how the pig’s organ works, but not as much as more formal testing, said Karen Maschke, a researcher at the Hastings Center who is helping to develop ethical and policy recommendations for Xenotransplantation clinical trials.

The fact that the FDA allowed this second case “suggests that the agency is not ready to allow a pig heart clinical trial to begin,” Mashke added.

The pig heart, provided by Revivicor, based in Blacksburg, Virginia, has 10 genetic modifications: removing some pig genes and adding some human ones to make it more acceptable to the human immune system.

In a file photo, pigs are seen on a farm in Argentina, in September 2020. Chinese scientists had managed to grow kidneys containing human cells in pig embryos, a world first at the time.In a file photo, pigs are seen on a farm in Argentina, in September 2020. Chinese scientists managed to grow kidneys containing human cells in pig embryos, a world first at the time. AFP via Getty Images

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The Associated Press Health and Science Department receives support from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute’s Department of Science Education. The AP is solely responsible for all content.

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