Pig heart used in first human transplant had a VIRUS which 'played a role in patient's death' two months after surgery

THE genetically modified organ used in the first pig-to-human heart transplant had a virus that "played a role in the patient's death," a report has found.

Maryland native David Bennett Sr had the operation on January 7, but unexpectedly died just two months after the groundbreaking surgery on March 8.

On Wednesday, experts claimed the pig heart used in the surgery was infected with a porcine virus, MIT Technology Review reported.

“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.”

Dr Griffith said medics are "beginning to learn why he passed on,” adding that the virus might have been "the actor, or could be the actor, that set this whole thing off.”

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“If this was an infection, we can likely prevent it in the future,” Dr Griffith said during his presentation.

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

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.

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According to Denner, the US teams appear to have tested the donor pig’s heart for the virus, but it is often found deeper in the tissues and could be challenging 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 Sr, who had severe heart disease, agreed to receive the experimental pig’s heart after being rejected from several waiting lists to receive a human heart.

The surgery was performed by doctors at the University of Maryland Medical Center in Baltimore.

At the time of his death, Dr Griffith said the hospital’s staff was “devastated” by Bennett Sr's sudden passing.

“He proved to be a brave and noble patient who fought all the way to the end,” Dr Griffith told the New York Times at the time.

“Mr. Bennett became known by millions of people around the world for his courage and steadfast will to live.”


Bennett’s 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.”

The experimental surgery – which took seven hours to complete – led doctors at the medical center to confirm the procedure showed that a heart from a genetically modified animal can work in the human body without being rejected immediately.

In a statement obtained by The Associated Press a day before the surgery, Bennett said it was either "die or do this transplant."

"I want to live. I know it’s a shot in the dark, but it’s my last choice."

The experimental surgery was performed as there is an ongoing organ shortage crisis.

His son told the news outlet his dad was ineligible for a human heart transplant, and this was his only option for a chance at living – despite it not being guaranteed to help.

Bennett’s transplant was initially deemed successful after doctor's revealed he was breathing on his own while being hooked up to a heart-lung machine three days post-operation.

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The pig heart used in the procedure went through a gene-editing process to remove a sugar in its cells known for organ rejection.

The FDA green-lighted the surgery under a "compassionate use" emergency authorization, as Bennett's condition was life-threatening and no other options could help save him.

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