A veteran of the United States Navy from Maryland who had pioneering experimental surgery on September 20 has died suddenly, less than six weeks after the operation. The man hadn’t been a candidate for a donated human transplant, so he consented to have his dying heart replaced by one generated in a genetically modified pig. Despite doctors’ cautious optimism, a tragic outcome was reached in this experiment.
After 20 years of service in the United States Navy, Lawrence Faucette realized he was living on borrowed time when he was just 58 years old. Doctors declined to add him to an organ donor registry despite the fact that he was in the latter stages of heart failure due to his peripheral artery disease and internal bleeding. The experimental pig heart was his only option. Both the patient and his wife recognized the potential downsides but were thankful for the opportunity to extend their time together for any amount of time at all.
The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) states that xenotransplantation, the use of animal cells or organs, has the potential to increase access to transplants beyond what is possible with present human donor methods. There is also the risk of patients catching an infection from the donor animal, which has been a big stumbling block. Particularly worrisome are retroviruses due to their latent nature and potential for sudden reactivation. Scientists have been attempting to eradicate at least one of these dangers by genetically engineering pigs to produce organs more similar to those found in humans.
The transplant procedure for Faucette appeared to be successful. On October 20, one month after his successful surgery, doctors attempted to wean him off the drugs they had been using to sustain the functioning of his donor heart. It seemed like the organ was functioning normally on its own, but rejection symptoms quickly showed up. On October 30, he passed away.
Although xenotransplantation is still in its infancy, researchers are optimistic that technological developments will pave the way for breakthroughs that could one day save the lives of hundreds of thousands of people.