'How Am I Talking to Someone Who Has a Pig Heart?'

Navy vet Lawrence Faucette, 58, has transplant in Maryland, only the 2nd living patient to do so
By Newser Editors and Wire Services
Posted Sep 23, 2023 11:30 AM CDT
He's the 2nd Living Person in History to Get a Pig's Heart
Surgeons perform a pig heart transplant into Lawrence Faucette at the school's hospital in Baltimore in September. Two days after the transplant, Lawrence was cracking jokes and able to sit in a chair, doctors said Friday.   (Deborah Kotz/University of Maryland School of Medicine via AP)

Surgeons have transplanted a pig's heart into a dying man in a bid to prolong his life—only the second patient to ever undergo such an experimental feat. Two days after the Wednesday procedure, the man was cracking jokes and able to sit in a chair, Maryland doctors said Friday. The 58-year-old Navy veteran was facing near-certain death from heart failure, but other health problems meant he wasn't eligible for a traditional heart transplant, according to doctors at the University of Maryland School of Medicine. "Nobody knows from this point forward. At least now I have hope and I have a chance," Lawrence Faucette, from Frederick, Maryland, said in a video recorded by the hospital before Wednesday's operation, per the AP. "I will fight tooth and nail for every breath I can take."

While the next few weeks will be critical, doctors were thrilled at Faucette's early response to the pig organ. "I just keep shaking my head—how am I talking to someone who has a pig heart?" said Dr. Bartley Griffith, who performed the transplant. The same Maryland team last year performed the world's first transplant of a genetically modified pig heart into another dying man, David Bennett, who survived just two months. There's a huge shortage of human organs donated for transplant. Last year, there were just over 4,100 heart transplants in the US, a record number, but the supply is so tight that only patients with the best chance of long-term survival get offered one. Attempts at animal-to-human organ transplants have failed for decades, as people's immune systems immediately destroyed the foreign tissue.

Now, scientists are trying again using pigs genetically modified to make their organs more humanlike. The pig heart in Faucette's case, provided by Revivicor, has 10 genetic modifications, knocking out some pig genes and adding some human ones to make it more acceptable to the human immune system. Recently, scientists at other hospitals have tested pig kidneys and hearts in donated human bodies, hoping to learn enough to begin formal studies of what are called xenotransplants. To make this new attempt in a living patient outside of a rigorous trial, the Maryland researchers required special permission from the FDA, under a process reserved for certain emergency cases with no other options.

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It took more than 300 pages of documents filed with the FDA, but the Maryland researchers made their case they'd learned enough from their first attempt last year—even though that patient died for reasons that aren't fully understood—so that it made sense to try again. And Faucette, a retired lab technician from the National Institutes of Health, had to agree that he understood the procedure's risks. In a statement, his wife, Ann Faucette, said, "We have no expectations other than hoping for more time together. That could be as simple as sitting on the front porch and having coffee together." By Friday, his new heart was functioning well without any supportive machinery, the hospital said. "It's just an amazing feeling to see this pig heart work in a human," said Dr. Muhammad Mohiuddin, the Maryland team's xenotransplantation expert. "We will take every day as a victory and move forward."

(More organ transplants stories.)

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