Dave Bennett, 57, made history when he became the world’s first patient to receive a heart transplant from a genetically modified pig. The procedure went off without a hitch and his doctors have confirmed that he continues to recuperate as planned.
A Risky Procedure
Researchers have been looking for a solution to the global transplant organ shortage for decades. There simply aren’t enough healthy organs to go around. More than 100,000 Americans are currently on the transplant wait list and around 6,000 die every year. Many sick patients never make the list at all.
To help fill the void, scientists started looking at using organs from genetically modified pigs. Physician-scientist Muhammad Mohiuddin led the original study at the University of Maryland School of Medicine. They began their work by transplanting genetically modified organs into baboons. This helped them identify the right genes needed for a successful transplant.
Bennett was told he wasn’t considered a good fit for a human heart transplant because he had a history of missing medical appointments and not refilling his prescriptions. Studies show patients that don’t follow doctors’ instructions usually don’t live very long with a donor heart. Doctors also told him that he could wear an implantable device due to his irregular heartbeat.
With nowhere else to turn, Bennett decided to sign up for the experimental procedure.
The pig in question was raised by a Virginia-based company known as Revivicor. The animal was one year old and weighed 240 pounds.
Doctors said ten of the pig’s 100,000 genes had to be altered to make the organ more compatible with humans. These changes reduced the chances of complications, including possible organ rejection, blood clots as the blood passed through the heart, and the risk of the heart growing too large for the recipient.
Some say the method is unethical considering the pig has to be sacrificed as a result. But Bennett didn’t let that bother him. However, he admitted that he was nervous before the procedure.
This wasn’t his first time getting help from a pig. In 2013, he underwent surgery where a pig valve was placed in his heart. However, that operation didn’t count as a transplant because it didn’t involve a full organ and all of the pig cells were removed beforehand.
Doing Better Than Expected
Bennett’s doctors were thrilled with the results. The patient is now off a machine that helped circulate his blood for 45 days following the procedure. He is now breathing on his own, although with a quiet voice.
“The new heart is still a rock star,” said Dr. Bartley Griffith, who led the transplant team at the University of Maryland Medical Center. “It seems to be reasonably happy in its new host … It has more than exceeded our expectations.”
Griffith added that he had to leave Bennett on the heart machine for another week or so, calling the machine his “training wheels”, but he recovered so quickly that they decided to remove him early.
“The heart was rocking and rolling, and he was so stable that we elected to remove it,” he said.
Bennett’s son David Bennett Jr. recently came to visit him in the hospital. “My dad’s a fighter,” David said. “He was chosen to do this. He chose to do this.”
Griffith and his team were relieved when Bennett’s body didn’t immediately reject the organ, a condition known as hyperacute rejection, which, up until then, had been a major issue in transplanting animal organs into humans.
However, doctors remain concerned that Bennett could get an infection or that his body will reject the organ outright, which is a concern for any transplant patient.
Mohiuddin said he was touched when Bennett thanked him for saving his life. He said being a part of the first pig-to-human transplants was “great”, but the real goal was to save Bennett.
Bennett’s response “meant he understood what has been done. It meant he understood what he agreed to and what happened to him, and that was a very emotional feeling,” Mohiuddin said.
Griffith was touched by Bennett’s words as well.
“It just set me back on my heels,” Griffith said. “I should be thanking him for all he has done in terms of his willingness to participate and how much work he’s put into getting well and into cooperating with the plan.”
His son David is breathing a sigh of relief as well now that his dad is recovering.
“That provided a lot of peace of mind to me as the medical proxy, as his son that’s here supporting him,” David said. “I want it for him and I want it for the rest of the world, but he’s got to be willing to fight for it. So, it’s good to see that he’s doing that.”
However, Bennett still has a long road to recovery. He’s been in a hospital bed since November.
“To be honest, he doesn’t want to be here,” David said. “It’s hard watching him suffer, so I’m trying to find things to encourage him.”
He said his dad understood the risks when he signed up for the surgery, and his decision may ultimately help others. “Regardless of what happened, he wanted to help people,” David said.
Coming to Terms with His Criminal Past
When many people are hailing Bennett as a medical hero, his past is coming back to haunt him.
Leslie Shumaker Downey remembers seeing a story about the operation in a local newspaper. When she looked at the name, she froze. David Bennett Sr. was the same man that was convicted of stabbing her brother seven times back in 1988. Edward Shumaker spent the next 19 years using a wheelchair before dying in 2005.
“Ed suffered,” said Downey. “The devastation and the trauma, for years and years, that my family had to deal with.”
She said that Bennett “went on and lived a good life” after he got out of prison. “Now he gets a second chance with a new heart — but I wish, in my opinion, it had gone to a deserving recipient.”
There are no laws prohibiting someone with a criminal past from receiving a transplant.
“The key principle in medicine is to treat anyone who is sick, regardless of who they are,” said Arthur Caplan, a bioethics professor at New York University. “We are not in the business of sorting sinners from saints. Crime is a legal matter.”
Scott Halpern, a medical ethics professor at the University of Pennsylvania, said there’s a reason medicine and criminal justice are separate.
“We have a legal system designed to determine just redress for crimes,” he said. “And we have a health-care system that aims to provide care without regard to people’s personal character or history.”
The University of Maryland declined to say whether they were aware of Bennett’s criminal history before the operation.
“This patient came to us in dire need,” the officials added, “and a decision was made about his transplant eligibility based solely on his medical records.