By Nikita Bondale
In December 1967, Dr. Christiaan Barnard, a South African cardiothoracic surgeon, became the first to successfully conduct a human-to-human heart transplant (from a car accident victim to a man suffering from refractory heart failure), thereby revolutionizing the medical field.
Though that first patient, Louis Washkansky, did regain consciousness, he passed away eighteen days post-operation due to pneumonia. Though this patient did not live much longer, Barnard tried again. His second patient, Philip Blaiberg, lived for an additional nineteen months.
Looking at the present day, the average time that a patient is able to survive with a transplanted heart is ten years— or at least until the heart becomes too small or no longer functional for the body. These incredible advancements would have never been made possible if Dr. Barnard had stopped his research and experimentation after his first patient’s death.
Similarly, a new alternative transplant procedure must continue to be tested and researched to yield revolutionary results. This procedure would save the lives of thousands, however, many argue that the costs of future experimentation, as well as the time and energy involved, would not be that beneficial in the long run.
This new procedure is a form of “xenotransplantation”— the process which involves the “transplantation, implantation or infusion into a human recipient of either live cells, tissues, or organs from a nonhuman animal source.”
Bovine valves (cow) and porcine valves (pigs) are most commonly used to repair a human damaged heart valve. Cardiac xenotransplantation has gone through trials before, but the first successful surgery involving a pig heart occurred very recently in January 2022 on David Bennett, a man who was diagnosed with terminal heart disease.
Unfortunately, this patient passed away less than two months post-operation. As a result, certain questions have been asked both within and outside the medical community. If the patient died, why was this surgery named a success? Most importantly, why should experimentation continue to get funding even after Bennett’s passing?
First, this surgery has been named a success because even surviving two months was a scientific marvel. Organ transplants, particularly heart transplants, are very complicated because if done incorrectly, the body can easily reject the new organ and the patient can contract pneumonia and other life-threatening diseases.
In Bennett’s case, the pig heart was a last-ditch effort to save his life after years of his body being damaged by heart disease. This surgery and experiment have not been tested on most age, sex, race, and health classifications, which is why I believe increased testing must take place.
Secondly, the reason why funding must continue is so that this research can progress and hopefully provide more people with the organ they need to survive. According to organdonor.gov, a total of “106,657 people are on the national transplant waiting list,” and “17 people die each day waiting for an organ transplant.”
If this form of xenotransplantation were to continue receiving funding and more tests were done, it would create a revolutionary advancement and save the lives of thousands of people suffering from heart-related issues each year. For that reason, despite the death of the first patient in this field, research must continue.