(ORDO NEWS) — After a 57-year-old man died a few weeks after a heart transplant from a pig, researchers found that the organ contained the animal’s virus.
Researchers trying to find out what killed the first person to receive a heart transplant from a pig have found that the organ contained the animal’s virus, but can’t yet say if it played any role in the man’s death.
A Maryland man, 57-year-old David Bennett, died two months after the experimental transplant. Doctors at the University of Maryland said on May 6 that the viral DNA is inside the pig’s heart. Scientists are sure that this is a porcine cytomegalovirus that causes an active infection.
But the main concern about transplanting animals to humans is the risk that it could lead to new types of infections in humans.
Because some viruses are “latent,” meaning they hide without causing illness, “it could be a hitchhiker,” said Dr. Bartley Griffith, the surgeon who performed the Bennett transplant.
However, more sophisticated tests are being developed to “make sure we don’t miss these kinds of viruses,” added Dr. Muhammad Mohiuddin, scientific director of the university’s xenograft program.
The animal virus was first reported by MIT Technology Review, citing a scientific presentation Griffith gave to the American Transplant Society last month.
For decades, doctors have unsuccessfully tried to use animal organs to save human lives. Bennett, who was dying and ineligible for a human heart transplant, underwent surgery with a genetically engineered pig heart to prevent his immune system from rejecting the foreign organ.
The Maryland team said the donor pig was healthy, tested, and raised in a facility designed to prevent the animals from spreading infections. Revivicor, which provided the animal, declined to comment.
Griffith said that his patient, despite the severity of the disease, recovered quite well after the transplant. But one morning he woke up with symptoms that looked like an infection.
Doctors ran numerous tests to try to figure out the cause, and gave Bennett various antibiotics, antivirals, and immune-boosting treatments. But the pig’s heart swelled, filled with fluid, and eventually stopped functioning.
“What was the virus doing that could have caused swelling in his heart?” Griffith asked. “Honestly, we don’t know.”
The reaction was also not the typical organ rejection, he said, noting that the investigation is still ongoing.
Meanwhile, doctors at other medical centers around the country are experimenting with animal organs in donated human bodies and are aiming to conduct formal studies on living patients soon. It is still unclear how the swine virus will affect these plans.
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