First Successful Pig Heart Transplant Into Human: Details On The Amazing Technology And A Public Company To Watch

Pigs may not be able to fly, but they've provided a vital organ in a life-saving surgery for one U.S. man.

What Happened: A Maryland hospital completed the first transplant of a pig heart into a patient in a last-ditch effort to save the man’s life, according to the Associated Press.

The University of Maryland Medical Center used a transplant of a genetically modified pig heart to save the 57-year-old Maryland man. He remains alive at the time of writing, days after the historic surgery.

“It was either die or do this transplant. I want to live. I know it’s a shot in the dark, but it’s my last choice,” David Bennett said before he went in for his surgery. Bennett was ineligible for a human heart transplant due to having heart failure and an irregular heartbeat.

The Food and Drug Administration allowed the surgery under its “compassionate use” emergency authorization, which is presented when a patient has no other options for a life-threatening condition.

Bennett will be closely monitored over the next few weeks to see how his new heart is fairing.

“We’re learnings a lot every day with this gentleman,” said Dr. Bartley Griffith who performed the seven-hour surgery. Griffith has previously transplanted pig hearts in around 50 baboons.

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Why It’s Important: Human bodies often reject animal organs, which could make this the most interesting case study, given the genetic modifications. The animal to human transplant method is known as xenotransplantation.

The pig used in the transplant underwent gene-editing to remove a sugar in its cells that could be responsible for hyper-fast organ rejection.

In 1984, a dying infant survived 21 days with a baboon heart. In September 2021, doctors in New York temporarily attached a pig’s kidney to a deceased human body, which showed signs of working.

There is a big shortage of human organs being donated to be used in transplants. A shortage of human organs leads to many dying while on the wait list and has turned scientists to exploring animal organs. In 2021, a record of more than 3,800 heart transplants occurred in the U.S.

“If this works, there will be an endless supply of these organs for patients who are suffering,” Maryland University’s Scientific Director of animal-to-human transplant program Dr. Muhammad Mohiuddin said.

The life-saving surgery and potential treatment options using animal organs has already caught the attention of animal rights activists, including PETA.

“Animals aren’t toolsheds to be raided but complex, intelligent beings,” PETA said.

The Company Behind the Surgery: Several biotech companies are working on animal to human transplant technologies and potential trials. Revivicor, a subsidiary of United Therapeutics Corporation UTHR, was the company used for the life-saving heart transplant.

Revivicor was spun off from PPL Therapeutics, a company that has ties to another animal first. PPL Therapeutics produced Dolly the Sheep, the first cloned mammal. United Therapeutics acquired Revivicor in 2011.

The company lists “xenohearts” under its pipeline on its website. “Xenohearts are hearts from pigs which have been genetically engineered to be transplanted into patients with end-stage cardiac disease,” the website reads.

Revivicot has approval from the FDA for genetically engineered pigs. The company is raising a small herd of pigs that also have 10 genetic changes, which could make them better suited for future human bodies.

United Therapeutics is the first publicly traded biotech operating as a public benefit corporation, according to its website.

“Our public benefit purpose is to provide a brighter future for patients through (a) the development of novel pharmaceutical therapies; and (b) technologies that expand the availability of transplantable organs,” the company says.

United Therapeutics has beaten revenue estimates from the street in its last seven consecutive quarters, according to Benzinga Pro. The company is expected to report fourth quarter results in February and could share updates on Revivicor. 

Price Action: UTHR shares are up 4% to $206.58 on Tuesday. Shares have traded between $153.92 and $218.35 over the last 52 weeks.

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