First pig heart transplant patient ‘looked infected’ as animal found to have virus

The American man who received the first-ever pig heart transplant may have died because the pig was infected by a virus (Pictures: AFP)

The man who received the first-ever human heart transplant from a pig and subsequently died two months later may have fallen ill following the procedure due to a pig virus infection, according to a new report.

David Bennett, 57, received the historic first heart transplant from a pig in January at the University of Maryland Medical Center in Baltimore, but unexpectedly died just two months later.

At the time of his death, a spokesperson from the university said there was ‘no obvious cause identified at the time of his death.’

Bennett received the pig’s heart in a historic surgery after having suffered from terminal heart disease. The operation was a last ditch effort to save his life, and at first, it appeared to have worked. In the weeks following the surgery, Bennett was reportedly recovering well.

Yet, his condition began to suddenly decline two months later, and he died on March 8. Leading up to his death, doctors in Maryland could tell something wasn’t right.

‘He looked really funky,’ said Dr Bartley Griffith, the surgeon who performed the transplant on Bennett, during an American Society of Transplantation webinar.

Experts now believe that the pig used in the transplant was carrying a porcine virus that possibly contributed to the 57-year-old’s death.

According to Griffith, the pig used in the transplant was supposed to be free of all pathogens. The pig used for the transplant was raised by the biotech company Revivicor, which genetically altered its heart to reduce the chance that Bennett’s immune system would reject it.

Doctors noticed a ‘blip’ indicating the presence of the virus about 20 days after surgery, according to the MIT Technology Review. Forty-three days after the surgery, Bennett started to deteriorate, Griffith wrote.

‘He lost his attention and wouldn’t talk to us,’ the doctor wrote.

Doctors tried to treat him for an infection, and while he first appeared to be improving, his health went downhill once again about a week later.

A biopsy did not show signs of Bennet’s body rejecting the genetically altered heart. Instead, doctors believe the virus may have caused heart failure.

‘We are beginning to learn why he passed on,’ Griffith said during the webinar. ‘If this was an infection, we can likely prevent it in the future.’


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