Pig heart used in pioneering human transplant had virus: report

The genetically modified pig whose heart was used in the first human transplant of its kind had a porcine virus that may have played the role in the death of the patient two months later, experts said.

David Bennett Sr., 57, first seemed to be doing well the first few weeks after he received the history-making heart transplant on January 7 at the University of Maryland Medical Center in Baltimore, but his condition suddenly took a dramatic turn for the worse , the MIT Technology Review reported Wednesday.

“He looked really funky,” Dr. Bartley Griffith, Bennett’s transplant surgeon, said during an American Society of Transplantation webinar.

“Something happened to him. He looked infected.”

Despite doctors’ efforts to save the patient by treating him with an AIDS drug and antibodies from blood donors, he died March 8.

Members of the surgical team show the pig heart for transplant into patient David Bennett in Baltimore on Friday, Jan. 7, 2022.
Mark Teske/University of Maryland School of Medicine via AP

Griffith said that subsequent tests showed that the transplanted pig heart was infected with porcine cytomegalovirus, which in pigs can cause a wide range of symptoms, from pink eye and sneezing to pregnancy complications and stillbirths.

The virus previously has been linked to pig organ transplant failures in baboons.

Griffith said that the virus, which had not been detected prior to the transplant surgery, may have contributed to Bennett’s decline and death, the MIT Technology Review reported.

Dr. Bartley Griffith takes a selfie photo with patient David Bennett
In a medical first, doctors transplanted a pig heart into David Bennett in a last-ditch effort to save his life.
Dr. Bartley Griffith/University of Maryland School of Medicine via AP

“We are beginning to learn why he passed on,” said Griffith, adding that the porcine ailment “maybe was the actor, or could be the actor, that set this whole thing off.”

The animal used for the transplant was raised by the biotech company Revivicor, which altered its genome to reduce the risk of Bennett’s immune system rejecting the heart.

Joachim Denner, of the Institute of Virology at the Free University of Berlin, who studied the effects of a porcine virus on transplant organs, said more accurate testing could address the problem in future animal-to-human transplants.

David Bennett Jr., right, stands next to his father's hospital bed
David Bennett Sr. first seemed to be doing well the first few weeks after the surgery.
University of Maryland School of Medicine via AP

According to Denner, the US teams appear to have tested the donor pig’s snout for the virus, but often it is found deeper in the tissues and could be difficult to detect.

“But if you test the animal better, it will not happen,” Denner said. “The virus can be detected and easily removed from pig populations, but unfortunately they didn’t use a good assay and didn’t detect the virus, and this was the reason. The donor pig was infected, and the virus was transmitted by the transplant.”

Bennett was dying of heart failure and was not eligible for a human heart transplant, making him a suitable candidate for this experimental procedure.

David Bennett Jr., Preston Bennett, David Bennett Sr., Gillian Bennett, Nicole (Bennett) McCray, Sawyer Bennett, Kristi Bennett in 2019.
David Bennett Jr., Preston Bennett, David Bennett Sr., Gillian Bennett, Nicole (Bennett) McCray, Sawyer Bennett, and Kristi Bennett in 2019.
Byron Dillard via AP
Members of the surgical team perform the transplant of a pig heart into patient David Bennett
The animal used for the transplant was raised by the biotech company Revivicor.
Mark Teske/University of Maryland School of Medicine via AP

After Bennett’s death, his son praised the hospital for offering the last-ditch experiment, saying the family hoped it would help further efforts to end the organ shortage.

“We are grateful for every innovative moment, every crazy dream, every sleepless night that went into this historic effort,” David Bennett Jr. said in a statement released by the University of Maryland School of Medicine. “We hope this story can be the beginning of hope and not the end.”

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