David Bennett, the man who made history earlier this year when he became the first person in the world to receive a heart transplanted from a pig, has died. The news was announced Wednesday by the University of Maryland Medical Center (UMMC), where the historic operation was performed just two months ago.
“We are devastated by the loss of Mr Bennett. He proved to be a brave and noble patient who fought all the way to the end,” said Bartley P. Griffith, MD, the surgeon who transplanted the pig heart into Bennett in January. “We extend our sincerest condolences to his family.”
The hospital has not yet released information on the cause of death, and reportedly no obvious culprit has yet been found. The case is planned to appear in a peer-reviewed journal, the New York Times reports.
“We are grateful to Mr. Bennett for his unique and historic role in helping to contribute to a vast array of knowledge to the field of xenotransplantation,” said Muhammad M. Mohiuddin, MD, Professor of Surgery and Scientific Director of the Cardiac Xenotransplantation Program at the UMMC.
When he first came to the hospital, his prognosis was poor: he was being kept alive by an ECMO machine and deemed ineligible for a donor heart transplant. He signed up for the pig heart knowing that it was experimental and had unknown risks and benefits, the university explained, and his surgery was granted emergency authorization on December 31 in the hopes of extending his life.
And for a while, it worked: Bennett was able to spend time with his family and had been undergoing physical therapy to regain strength. There were no signs of the heart being rejected. But several days ago, that changed.
Bennett “became known by millions of people around the world for his courage and steadfast will to live,” Griffith said, but once it became clear he would not recover, he was given compassionate palliative care, the UMMC's statement explains. His final hours were spent with his family.
Although this story has a sad ending, the surgeons who performed the transplant are optimistic about the future.
“As with any first-in-the-world transplant surgery, this one led to valuable insights that will hopefully inform transplant surgeons to improve outcomes and potentially provide lifesaving benefits to future patients,” said Griffith.
And with the success, however temporary, of the heart transplant, as well as a handful of pioneering kidney transplants from gene-edited pigs carried out last year, there are hopes that the FDA will give the go ahead for more research to be carried out going forward.
“We have gained invaluable insights learning that the genetically modified pig heart can function well within the human body while the immune system is adequately suppressed,” said Dr Mohiuddin. “We … plan on continuing our work in future clinical trials.”