April 26, 2022
Previously, I wrote an article detailing the initial success of the genetically modified pig heart transplant in David Bennett, a 57-year-old man. While doctors were skeptical about the future of pig heart transplants, it was not expected for Bennett to live another 2 months.
Bennett was suffering from severe heart disease when the Food and Drug Administration authorized this groundbreaking heart surgery in a desperate attempt to save his life. Incredibly, it was a success and proved to be highly beneficial to medical science.
However, the genetically modified pig heart came with its risks from the start. While scientists knew that a pig heart was capable of pumping blood around the circulatory system in the same way as a human heart, the problem was the immune system’s response to a foreign heart. The pig heart that Bennett received was genetically modified to be easier for the immune system to accept. Still, it’s still a pig heart. There’s only so much that can be done with genetic alterations given the limitations of current knowledge and tools. Although the immediate success of Bennett’s surgery was a massive success, infections were soon to follow. Due to a combination of much-needed immunosuppression to keep the heart out of harm’s way and an infection that was allowed to run rampant against a weakened immune system, he ultimately passed away.
“I think that his passing was inevitable since we don’t yet have the technology to fully transplant a different animal heart into our bodies and have it be just as effective,” junior Ryan Savoie said. “It seems unlikely that another transplant like this will be attempted soon.”
Mr. Bennett’s case does, indeed, seem to be rare: a patient has to be entirely beyond hope of recovery or alternative treatment and they have to agree to the possibility of further suffering with a non-human heart. While lists of patients in need of heart transplants are often long, not many have the courage to allow their life to hinge on an experiment.
“It’s possible that genetically modified organs could actually cost more. Usually, the less of something that exists, the more expensive it is, but more organs to transplant doesn’t make them all cheaper. People could end up paying even more for a genetically modified organ that can be transplanted immediately, as opposed to waiting for an organ to be donated and paying the usual amount,” said junior Christian McCleary.
A huge disconnect between health insurance companies and doctors has caused our current organ prices to spike. Realistically, the availability of genetically modified organs could create a system where people could pay high prices for an organ immediately or take their chances with the waitlist.