Doctors following the case of David Bennett, who received a pig heart transplant last January, believe the man’s death may have been caused by a pig virus.
An infection that can be avoided in the future. Last January, David Bennett was transplanted with a pig’s heart during an operation carried out in the United States. This historic first was hailed by the scientific world. Two months later, the patient finally died.
Bartley Griffith, David Bennett’s surgeon, explained the cause of death in a webinar relayed this Wednesday by the MIT Technology Review. He thus revealed that the transplanted pig heart was infected with a cytomegalovirus.
“We are beginning to understand why he died. The virus may have been the cause (…) which started it all,” said Bartley Griffith.
No risk of epidemic according to specialists
“If it was an infection, we can probably prevent that in the future,” adds the surgeon. Indeed, pigs bred for transplants have had some of their genes removed, and others added, so that they are compatible with humans, and that they can counter an attack by the immune system. The pig that provided the heart to David Bennett received ten gene changes. Adjustments could therefore avoid an infection capable of weakening transplant patients.
Faced with possible fears of an epidemic that would begin with an animal organ transplanted into a human, researchers have tempered. Transplant infection specialist Jay Fishman assured the Guardian that it does not represent “a real risk to humans”.
Also, David Bennett was a very sick patient. “Maybe the virus contributed, but that’s not the only reason,” says Joachim Denner, researcher at the Institute of Virology at the Free University of Berlin.
Surgeons continue to study David Bennett’s case, hoping to be even more efficient for future transplants. The rules for controlling organs donated to human beings could also be strengthened, to avoid similar cases.