What a Pig’s Heart Shows About Today’s Interlocked World
Those of us still reeling from Russia’s invasion of its sovereign neighbour have suddenly become depressed about what it means for the future of a global society. Just as we had thought that we had put national conflicts to rest, after 75 years of peace, Putin crushes the dream.
But a redeeming reminder — albeit small — that the world of humanity really is a united endeavor, comes from the case of David Bennett Sr.
David Bennett cuts to the heart of the matter, as it were. He has a pig’s heart.
I don’t say this to disparage the man. He is, in some ways, a pioneer. And he owes his life to Dr. Muhammad Mohiuddin.
Dr. Mohiuddin is a researcher who has spent 20 years developing ways to implant genetically modified animal organs into humans.
In January of this year, under his supervision, physicians successfully transplanted a pig heart into David Bennet — the first time an entire heart from another species had been transplanted.
The surgical team had to narrow and tighten some of the connections In the patient’s body so they would fit the pig’s heart.
Why a pig’s heart? You would think that an animal like a chimpanzees, which is closer to humans genetically, would be a better bet. But chimps are more of an endangered species, which is not the case with pigs. In addition, pigs are consumed as food in most parts of the world, and there is far less public opposition to using the heart of an animal that is widely eaten worldwide.
Another major reason for the choice of pigs is that, unlike with monkeys, a pig’s heart grows to the size of a human heart within a relatively short time.
Thus far, the patient is doing well. He watched the Super Bowl game from his hospital bed, and has started to ask the doctors when he’ll be able to go home.
Let us consider the parts of the world that have come together so that this man can wonder about his home-coming:
Dr. Mohiuddin is a pious Muslim who prays five times a day. He says that “In our home even mentioning the word ‘pig’ was a big no-no. If I spoke the word ‘pig,’ my mother used to make me gargle. Growing up in our culture in Karachi, you couldn’t even think of working with pigs. So it took me a while to adjust to the idea.” His home language in Pakistan is Urdu.
Mohiudddin enrolled in the Dow Medical School, the premier institution of its kind in Karachi.
As for religious influences on the operation, Christianity has no objections to pigs, and Islam and Judaism make allowances when the objective of saving human life is involved. The universality of world religions is assured on issues of life-and-death.
Mohiuddin’s laboratory today is in the University of Maryland School of Medicine
The pig heart was placed in a Swedish-made container, designed specifically for this purpose, that pumps a blend of saline solution, hormones and also a small amount of cocaine, through the organ.
The genetic modification procedures that made the trans-species operation possible, featured CRISPR, a genome editing technique whose developers, French-born Emmanuelle Charpentier and American Jennifer Doudna were awarded the 2020 Nobel Prize in Chemistry. They hailed from respectively from the Max Planck Institute for Infection Biology in Berlin, and the University of California, Berkeley.
The pig, for its part, was bred by Virginia-based genetic engineering company Revivicor, the firm that cloned Dolly the sheep in 1996.
It takes a world to save a life. Putin is an aberration, and he will be gone. The world will grind forward, relentlessly, along the path of connected science and development.
NOTICE: Reader Arthur Wetselaar has noted that the story needs to be updated. Sadly, Mr. Bennett passed away on March 8th: “Apparently the pig that donated his heart had strings of a cytomegalo virus.”
I had to look that up; apparently it is very common. For people with normal immune systems, it is not an issue, but for Mr. Bennett, whose immune system had been suppressed to allow for the surgery, it was a killer.
We must not lose hope, however. The first human heart transplant patient died within 18 days of receiving his new heart, some 55 years ago. There are now some 2,000 heart transplants performed each year in the U.S. alone — a number that cannot rise much because of the lack of donors. I have no doubt that the pig heart process will be perfected and will allow that number to grow to save many more people. Of those who receive a human heart, half of them are still alive more than a decade after their operation, with no signs of slowing down. I’d jump at it if needed. It’s covered under the Canadian health care plan, so what’s to lose!