David Bennett Sr, a US citizen who became the world’s first patient to receive a genetically-modified pig’s heart, may have died two months later because of a porcine virus, a preventable infection that is linked to devastating effects on transplants.
According to a report in MIT Technology Review, the pig heart carried a virus that may have derailed the experiment and contributed to Bennett’s death.
The presence of the pig virus was described by Bartley Griffith of the University of Maryland School of Medicine and Bennett's transplant surgeon in a recent webinar hosted by the American Society of Transplantation.
“We are beginning to learn why he passed on,” Griffith said, adding that the virus “maybe was the actor, or could be the actor, that set this whole thing off”.
Bennett, 57 and suffering from terminal heart disease, received a heart from biotechnology company Revivicor, which produces genetically-modified pigs.
According to Joachim Denner of the Institute of Virology at the Free University of Berlin, the solution is more accurate testing.
“It’s a latent virus and hard to detect. But if you test the animal better, it will not happen. The virus can be detected and easily removed from pig populations, but unfortunately they didn’t use a good assay and didn’t detect the virus, and this was the reason,” he said in the report.
“The donor pig was infected, and the virus was transmitted by the transplant,” Denner said.
Following surgery, the transplanted heart performed very well for several weeks without any signs of rejection. The patient was able to spend time with his family and participate in physical therapy to help regain strength.
He watched the Super Bowl with his physical therapist and spoke often about wanting to get home to his dog Lucky.
“As with any first-in-the-world transplant surgery, this one led to valuable insights that will hopefully inform transplant surgeons to improve outcomes and potentially provide lifesaving benefits to future patients,” Griffith said.