Researchers trying to figure out what killed the first person to receive a heart transplant from a pig have discovered that the organ harbored an animal virus, but can’t yet say if it played any role in the man’s death.
A Maryland man, 57-year-old David Bennett Sr., died in March, two months after the groundbreaking experimental transplant. Doctors at the University of Maryland said Thursday they found an unwelcome surprise — viral DNA in the pig’s heart. They found no evidence that this virus, called porcine cytomegalovirus, was causing an active infection.
However, a major concern with animal-to-human transplants is the risk that new types of infections could be introduced into humans.
Since some viruses are “latent,” meaning they lurk without causing disease, “it could be a hitchhiker,” said Dr. Bartley Griffith, the surgeon who performed Bennett’s transplant, told The Associated Press.
Still, more sophisticated tests are being developed to “make sure we don’t overlook these types of viruses,” added Dr. Muhammad Mohiuddin, scientific director of the university’s xenotransplantation program.
The animal virus was first reported by MIT Technology Review, citing a scientific presentation Griffith gave to the American Society of Transplantation last month.
For decades, doctors have tried unsuccessfully to use animal organs to save lives. Bennett, who was dying and ineligible for a human heart transplant, underwent the very last operation with a genetically modified pig heart to reduce the risk that his immune system would quickly reject such a foreign organ.
The Maryland team said the donor pig is healthy, has passed tests required by the Food and Drug Administration to screen for infection, and was raised in a facility designed to prevent the spread of infection through animals. Revovicor, the company that provided the animal, declined to comment.
Griffith said his patient, while very ill, recovered fairly well from the transplant when he woke up worse one morning with symptoms resembling an infection. Doctors ran numerous tests to understand the cause and gave Bennett a variety of antibiotics, antivirals, and immune-boosting treatment. But the pig’s heart swelled, filled with fluid, and eventually stopped working.
“What, if anything, did the virus do that might have caused the swelling in his heart?” Griffith asked. “Honestly, we don’t know.”
The reaction also didn’t appear to be typical organ rejection, he said, noting that the investigation is still ongoing.
Meanwhile, doctors at other medical centers across the country have been experimenting with animal organs in donated human bodies and are anxious to attempt formal studies on living patients soon. It’s not clear how the swine virus will affect those plans.
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