Researchers trying to find out what killed the first person to receive a heart transplant from a pig have found that the organ contains an animal virus, but cannot yet say whether it played a role in the person’s death.
A Maryland man, 57-year-old David Bennett Sr., died in March, two months after the groundbreaking experimental transplant. Doctors at the University of Maryland said Thursday that they had found unwanted viral DNA in a pig’s heart. They found no evidence that this bug, called porcine cytomegalovirus, was causing an active infection.
But the main concern about animal-to-human transplants is the risk that it could lead to new types of human infections.
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Because some viruses are “latent,” meaning they lurk without causing disease, “it could be a hitchhiker,” Dr. Bartley Griffith, the surgeon who performed Bennett’s transplant, told the Associated Press.
The animal virus was first reported by the MIT Technology Review, citing a scientific presentation Griffith gave to the American Transplant Society last month.
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For decades, doctors have tried unsuccessfully to use animal organs to save lives. Bennett, who was dying and not eligible for a human heart transplant, underwent a recent operation using a genetically modified pig’s heart to reduce the risk of his immune system quickly rejecting such a foreign organ.
The Maryland team said the donor pig was healthy, passed the testing required by the Food and Drug Administration to check for infections, and was kept in a facility designed to prevent the spread of animal infections. Revivicor, the company that provided the animal, declined to comment.