The Maryland man who received a genetically modified pig’s heart died earlier this month, eight weeks after he received the transplant.
For the 57-year-old patient, David Bennett, the procedure was a failure. Although doctors released video of Bennett watching the Super Bowl after the procedure, Bennett never made it out of the hospital. But for humanity, the procedure was a resounding success.
About 3,500 Americans are on the heart transplant waiting list at any given time, and some of them don’t survive until a heart becomes available. Car accident victims are one of the prime sources of donor hearts, but as cars get safer, particularly with the rise of self-driving vehicles, the availability of donor organs will decrease.
As with all developing technologies, there are cycles of development, the measuring of results, learning from the data and further iterations of the technology based on the data. This same build-measure-learn cycle is necessary whether you’re building a social media app, a self-driving car or a process for saving humans with a pigs’ hearts. No one gets it right the first time.
Although news reports didn’t identify the specific cause of Bennett’s death or what learnings there may have been, it’s clear the doctors who treated Bennett gained knowledge that should make the procedure better the next time it’s used.
“We have gained invaluable insights learning that the genetically modified pig heart can function well within the human body while the immune system is adequately suppressed,” Dr. Muhammad Mohiuddin, scientific director of the Maryland university’s animal-to-human transplant program, said in a statement.