Another failure of xenotransplantation
- Dr. Johanna Walter
Second patient died after pig heart transplantation
On September 20, 58-year-old Lawrence Faucette received a genetically modified pig heart transplant in Maryland, USA. Now the patient is dead. The Maryland Medical Center in Baltimore, however, refered to this as a "monumental achievement" and pays tribute to Faucette as a hero who would allow surgeons to further develop xenotransplantation. The German association Doctors Against Animal Experiments is appalled that xenotransplantation research once again not only fails to acknowledge its failure, but even attempts to reframe it as a success (1).
On September 20, Lawrence Faucette became the second person to receive a genetically modified pig heart. The first transplantation took place in January 2022 when David Bennett received a pig heart and passed away eight weeks after the procedure - partly due to the presence of a pig virus in the transplanted heart (2). The two transplanted pig hearts were obtained from genetically modified pigs which had their genetic material altered at ten distinct positions to reduce the risk of rejection of the organ by the human immune system. Specifically, six human genes were incorporated into the pigs' genome (3). The company responsible for ‘producing’ these genetically modified pigs is Revivicor, USA, which centers its entire business model around xenotransplantation. In response to the lessons learned from Bennett's early death, the pig heart transplanted to the second patient underwent a more thorough virus screening.
Despite the genetic modification of the pig heart and the use of medication to suppress the patient's immune system, signs of organ rejection appeared in the transplanted heart, leading to the patient’s death on October 30, less than six weeks after the transplantation (4). The researchers involved now plan to analyze the causes of Faucette's death in detail to learn for future xenotransplantations. Consequently, they do not regard the patient’s death as a failure, but as a ‘monumental achievement’ (4).
"It is remarkable how every failure of xenotransplantation research is turned into a success," remarks Dr. Johanna Walter, scientific officer at Doctors Against Animal Experiments. "While there is always room for learning from mistakes, when this comes at the cost of patients who agree to the procedure out of desperation, and the countless animals involved, such a statement appears simply cynical”, Walter continues. "Pigs are being bred and killed as genetically modified ‘spare parts store’, and numerous baboons and other monkeys suffer and die in xenotransplantation experiments. In Germany, such research has been conducted for decades at the Ludwig Maximilians University of Munich. The monkeys with the transplanted pig organs regularly die of organ failure, sometimes within hours, and sometimes after weeks. This is then celebrated as a success."
Similar to the Bennet case, the media coverage of Faucette's transplantation was euphoric. The technical progress through xenotransplantation is seen as an option to eliminate the shortage of human donor organs and the surgeons and patients involved are depicted as pioneers or heroes. However, there are other approaches to address the shortage of human donor organs. For instance, the utilization of mechanical ventricular assist devices, known as artificial hearts, which can be implanted into the patient to either support the patient's heart in pumping or even replace it, has proven to be quite successful and already represents an alternative to transplanting human hearts (6).
In addition, most advanced heart diseases are not an inevitable destiny. "Why are substantial financial resources allocated into xenotransplantation research and why is it accepted that xenotransplantation – if it is ever successful at all – will be an exceedingly costly procedure? Why are these resources not directed in the prevention of the underlying diseases and their progression to organ failure? Is it because such measures do not yield the same scientific prestige? And because prevention is not as financially lucrative as ‘producing’ pig organs through patented processes?", Walter suspects.
Doctors Against Animal Testing is appalled by this kind of research, which recklessly sacrifices countless animals and now also patients, to develop a prestigious method that is expected to yield in enormous profits. The association calls for an immediate stop of xenotransplantation research. Instead, the necessity of organ transplantation should be minimized as far as possible through preventive measures and therapeutic solutions should be developed using highly efficient and human-relevant research methods.
- Zietek T. Xenotransplantation: Wie immenses Tierleid als „Meilenstein“ verkauft wird. Expert opinion of Doctors Againast Animal Experiments, 13.12.2023
- Xenotransplantation: Tod des Patienten vermutlich aufgrund von Schweinevirus. Press release of of Doctors Againast Animal Experiments, 06.05.2022
- UM medicine faculty-scientists and clinicians perform second historic transplant of pig heart into patient with end-stage cardiovascular disease. Press release of the University of Maryland School of Medicine, 22.09.2023
- In Memoriam: Lawrence Faucette. Press release of the University of Maryland School of Medicine, 31.10.2023
- US-Forscher transplantieren Schweine-Nieren in Affen. Press release of Doctors Againast Animal Experiments, 16.10.2023
- Garbade G. et al. Heart transplantation and left ventricular assist device therapy: two comparable options in end-stage heart failure? Clinical Cardiology 2013: 36(7): 378-382.