Silver lining of the first pig-to-human organ transplant

Stephanie Trujillo is a rising senior majoring in English and Spanish. She is a writer for The Miami Hurricane centralizing on opinion to share her perspective on what is going on in today’s world.

When heart surgeons performed a successful pig-to-human heart transplant on Jan. 7, 2022, they may have opened the door to both life-saving procedures for the millions waiting on a life-saving organ and a boatload of controversy. Many of those waiting in line, however, do not have time to debate ethics.

The recipient, 57-year-old David Bennett Sr. was an ex-convict who began experiencing heart failure symptoms in October 2020, yet he failed to take medication consistently, follow doctors’ orders and attend follow up visits. His lack of compliance ultimately cost him a spot on the donor wait list.

Leslie Shumaker Downey, the sister of the man Bennett assaulted, shared with news outlets that she felt he was not a worthy recipient of the altered heart. She condemns Bennett’s second chance at life after he left her brother paralyzed in 1988.

The sad truth is his participation was necessary for the future of medicine. According to the Health Resources and Services Administration, in the U.S. 17 people die everyday waiting for transplants. The regulation of pig transplants would grant people another option of survival.

Muhammad Mohiuddun, a University of Maryland surgeon and the leader of the research team behind the transplant, struggled to get approval from the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to begin testing the likelihood of a person’s survival with a pig heart.

The FDA asked the team to find a pig from a medical grade facility and perform 10 successful pig-to-baboon heart transplants before the human trials could begin. Mohiuddun said that baboon transplants cost approximately $500,000 which delayed their progress until December 2021, when Bennett’s doctor introduced the idea of a pig heart.

Bennett’s deteriorating condition led the FDA to grant the research team emergency authorization to conduct a pig-to-human transplant operation without the previously requested trials.

Stephanie Trujillo is a rising senior at the U aiming to share her perspective on current events.
Stephanie Trujillo is a rising senior at the U aiming to share her perspective on current events.

Though the recipient is an ex-convict, the medical field is not concerned with patients’ criminal histories as BBC states. In the medical world everyone is eligible for and deserves treatment for survival because they are not in the business of the law. They are in the business of saving lives.

In the pursuit of the regulation of pig-to-human transplant, the situation was ideal. Bennett was not eligible for a human heart transplant and was on cardiac support for the previous two months with an irregular heartbeat that restricted him from receiving a mechanical heart pump.

“It was either die or do this transplant,” Bennett said in a statement provided by the University of Maryland School of Medicine before his surgery.

The power to transplant pig organs to humans would save numerous lives but it questions morality and legitimacy.

Scientists have tested the possibility of non-human organ transplants for years. Back in 2017, scientists created the first human-animal hybrids proving non-human organisms can survive in pigs.

Though living with a pig organ inside one’s body sounds skeptical, pig-to-human transplant is an experimental hypothesis to survival at the moment. The transplant is at its early stages as doctors research and perfect their engineering of the organ for optimal survival rates as opportunities such as Bennett’s arise.

Following soon after doctors have constructed an engineered organ they are confident in, the FDA, entrusted with the public health of the nation, will go through multiple robust stages of trials before pig transplants are publicly offered as an alternative to the donor waitlist.

Morally, euthanizing pigs at a large scale for human survival is at question as well. As humans, we have a duty to uphold animal welfare. If animals are genetically engineered to save human lives, their physical and psychological needs should be met.

Though some may still question the morality of the situation, the truth is Americans consume roughly 66 pounds of pork annually. Consumption seems less vital than life saving organ transplants.

Unfortunately, Bennett died on March 8 but the specific cause of death is still unknown. Though he passed, the heart transplant is still considered a success because Bennett’s body did not immediately reject the pig heart which allowed him to live with the pig heart for a month.

This heart transplant’s significant step forward is the start of another medical industrialization aimed toward preservation of human life. Bennett’s transplant marks the beginning of regulating the transplanting pig organs in humans. Even more so, the procedure gives hope that one day medical professionals will be able to give people with organ complications another chance to live.