Listen to the news
Surgeons transplanted a pig's heart to a dying man in an attempt to extend his life - this is only the second patient to undergo such an experiment. Two days later, the man was already telling jokes and could sit on a chair, Maryland doctors said Friday.
The 58-year-old Navy veteran faced near-certain death from heart failure, but doctors at the University of Maryland School of Medicine said he was not eligible for a traditional heart transplant due to other health problems.
"Nobody knows from this point on. Now, at least, I have hope and a chance," said patient Lawrence Fawcett of Frederick, Maryland, in a video recorded by the hospital prior to Wednesday's surgery. "I will fight tooth and nail for every breath I can take," he added.
Although the next few weeks will be critical, doctors are excited about the good early reaction of Fawcett's body to the pig organ.
"You know, I still can't believe how I talk to a person who has a pork heart," said Dr. Bartley Griffith, who performed the transplant. He added that doctors feel "very proud but, you know, under a lot of pressure."
Last year, the same Maryland team performed the world's first genetically modified pork heart transplant on another dying man, David Bennett, who survived for just two months.
There is a huge shortage of human organs donated for transplantation. Last year, just over 4,100 heart transplants were performed in the U.S., a record number, but the supply is so limited that only patients with the best chance of long-term survival are offered.
Attempts to transplant organs from animals to humans have failed for decades because people's immune systems immediately destroy foreign tissue. Now, scientists are making new experiments using pigs genetically modified to bring their organs closer to humans.
Recently, scientists from other hospitals tested pig kidneys and hearts in donor human bodies, hoping to learn enough to begin official studies of so-called xenotransplants.
To make this new experience with a living patient, Maryland researchers needed special authorization from the Food and Drug Administration, under a procedure reserved for some emergencies with no other options.
It took over 300 pages of documents filed with the Food and Drug Administration, but Maryland researchers have proven that they learned enough from their first experience last year even though the patient died from reasons that aren't fully understood and that it makes sense to try again.
And Fawcett, who retired as a lab technician at the National Institutes of Health, had to agree that he understood the risks of the procedure.
In a statement, his wife, Ann Fawcett, said: "We have no expectations other than to hope to spend more time together. It could just be sitting on the porch in front of your house and drinking coffee together."
Perhaps more importantly, while Fawcett was in the final stages of heart failure and had no other options, he wasn't as close to death as the previous patient.
By Friday, his new heart had functioned well without any support machines, the hospital said.
"It's an incredible feeling to see this pork heart beat in a person," said Dr. Mohammed Mohiudin, the xenotransplant expert from the Maryland team. But he warned that "we don't want to predict anything we'll take every day as a victory and move on."
The pig heart, provided by Blacksburg, Va., Revicor, has 10 genetic modifications some pig genes excluded and some human genes have been added to make it more acceptable to the human immune system.
Doctors Implant New Generation of Artificial Heart