The first-ever successful transplant of a genetically modified pig heart into a human patient was achieved earlier this month, yet what many people don’t know is that the procedure would probably have failed without the use of cocaine. As reported by Vice, surgeons at the University of Maryland Medical Center (UMMC) used a solution containing a small quantity of marching powder in order to keep the heart viable prior to performing the life-saving operation.
Among the many difficulties associated with such transplants is the fact that donor organs don’t tend to survive for very long once they have been removed from their original owners’ bodies. Tragically, many procedures fail because organs deteriorate while in transit, all of which highlights the need to develop new techniques to extend the lifespan of these excised biological components.
To overcome this problem, the surgeons behind this groundbreaking transplant treated the porcine heart with a solution containing a mix of hormones such as cortisol and adrenaline, as well as a miniscule amount of cocaine. Produced by Swedish company XVIVO, the formula had to be imported into the US, and was understandably placed under intense scrutiny by the Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) before being approved for use.
Dr. Muhammad Mohiuddin, the director of cardiac xenotransplantation at UMMC, says that the use of this concoction significantly extended the viability of the heart. “When we were not using this solution, we were getting failures within 48 hours,” he told Vice. “But when we started using this and infusing the heart with this solution, the heart became well preserved and started beating very well.”
Exactly how cocaine helps to preserve harvested hearts is not fully understood, yet Mohiuddin says that expanding access to the Charlie-laced solution could help to save the lives of countless people in need of organ transplants. “It will be a great advance if this process is approved by the regulatory agencies here also, as we cannot get hearts usually within the span of two to three hours,” he explained. “This will allow us to get hearts from other states.”
Xenotransplantation, which refers to the use of non-human organs in human patients, is widely seen as the most feasible solution to the present shortage of available donor organs. Research in this field has reached new heights in recent months, with a number of successful transplants of pig kidneys into human recipients having taken place.
More work is needed in order to refine the method, but once perfected, xenotransplantation could save countless lives – at the cost of a lot more paperwork for the DEA.