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Health Tips Tuesday: breakthroughs in heart transplants

Last month, surgeons in Maryland successfully transplanted a pig's heart into a 57-year-old man with terminal heart disease.
Published: Feb. 8, 2022 at 9:00 AM EST
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SPRINGFIELD, MA (WGGB/WSHM) -- Last month, surgeons in Maryland successfully transplanted a pig’s heart into a 57-year-old man with terminal heart disease. What does this breakthrough mean for the future of heart transplants and are there risks? Dr. Daniel Engelman, a cardiac surgeon at Baystate Health, joined us for Health Tips Tuesday to tell us more about the new medical breakthrough.

What does this breakthrough surgery mean for the future of heart transplants and are there risks?

Engelman: “Well, we don’t really know. This is one-of-a kind surgery. There are presently 10,000 people in this country waiting for a heart transplant and we don’t have enough donor organs for them, so if we can modify a pig heart such that it can be accepted as a suitable transplant and not be rejected, this would open up a lot of lifesaving surgery for this population that really doesn’t have too many options.”

Dr. Barry Griffin, who transplanted the animal’s heart into the patient, called the transplant “breakthrough surgery,” bringing the medical community closer to solving the organ shortage crisis. Does this surgery provide hope in solving this crisis?”

Engelman: “It’s almost too early too early to answer that. We need to see if this patient can survive long-term. So far, this patient has done well, but only three weeks after the transplant. We have to see if this patient rejects this particular organ and how well the organ grows with the patient and how long it lasts. Typically, you won’t know for many months, and you need more than one patient. You need a much larger sample size to see if this is as great as we are hoping.”

What are the challenges ahead for the medical community in understanding such transplants?

Engelman: “Well, it’s not just hearts. It’s also kidneys. There are 90,000 people right now waiting for kidney transplants, so if we can modify pigs in such a fashion that the organs are never rejected, this could open up a whole new area of therapy. Right now, for hearts, the best thing we have for most people are mechanical circulatory devices and they are bulky and they have their own intrinsic problems, so we are really hoping this opens a whole new field with end stage heart disease.”