Researchers trying to find out the death of the first person to have a heart transplant from a pig have found that the animal contains the animal virus, but cannot yet say whether it played a role in the person’s death.
A Maryland man, 57-year-old David Bennett Sr., died in March, two months after a groundbreaking experimental transplant. Doctors at the University of Maryland said on Thursday that they had found an unwanted surprise – viral DNA in a pig’s heart. They found no evidence that this bug, called porcine cytomegalovirus, causes an active infection.
But the main concern with animal-to-human transplantation is the risk that it could bring new types of infections to humans.
Because some viruses are “latent,” meaning they lurk without causing disease, “it could be hitchhiking,” said Associated Press Dr. Bartley Griffith, the surgeon who performed Bennett’s transplant.
However, more sophisticated tests are being developed to “make sure we don’t miss these types of viruses,” added Dr. Muhammad Mohiuddin, the research supervisor of the university’s xenotransplant program.
The animal virus was first reported by the MIT Technology Review, citing a scientific presentation Griffith made to the American Society of Transplantology last month.
For decades, doctors have tried in vain to use animal organs to save lives. Bennett, who died and was not eligible for a human heart transplant, underwent a recent operation using 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 was healthy, passed the testing needed by the Food and Drug Administration to check for infections, and was raised in an institution designed to prevent the spread of animal infections. Revivicor, which supplied the animal, declined to comment.
Griffith said his patient, who was very ill, was recovering quite well after the transplant when one morning he woke up worse with symptoms similar to an infection. Doctors performed many tests to try to understand the cause, and gave Bennett many antibiotics, antivirals and immune treatments. But the pig’s heart swelled, filled with fluid and eventually ceased to function.
“What did the virus do if anything that could cause swelling in his heart?” Griffith asked. “Honestly, we don’t know.”
The reaction was also not a typical rejection of the organ, he said, noting that the investigation is still ongoing.
Meanwhile, doctors at other medical centers across the country are experimenting with animal organs in donated human bodies and are seeking to conduct official studies on living patients in the near future. It is unclear how the swine virus will affect these plans.
The Associated Press Department of Health and Science receives support from the Department of Science Education of the Howard Hughes Medical Institute. AP is solely responsible for all content.
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