Cocaine helped first ever pig heart transplant

‘When we started using this and infusing the heart with this solution, the heart became well preserved and started beating very well,’ doctor says

Gustaf Kilander
Washington, DC
Wednesday 26 January 2022 21:14
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Pig heart transplanted into human

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Doctors have managed to transplant a genetically modified pig heart into a human being for the first time, with the help of a small amount of cocaine.

The successful operation took place earlier this month at the University of Maryland Medical Center. Surgeons used a solution containing a small portion of the drug to keep the heart going ahead of the operation, Vice reported.

In previous failed operations, donor organs haven’t survived the transportation from their previous owner to the person receiving the organ. The Maryland surgeons treated the heart with the solution, which also contained cortisol and adrenaline, to keep it in a usable condition for long enough, up to 24 hours, for the transplant to be successful.

The solution was made by the Swedish company XVIVO and imported into the US, where it was investigated by the Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) before it was allowed to be used.

The director of cardiac xenotransplantation at the Maryland hospital, Dr Muhammad Mohiuddin, told Vice that the solution substantially extended the lifespan of the heart.

“When we were not using this solution, we were getting failures within 48 hours,” he told Vice. “But when we started using this and infusing the heart with this solution, the heart became well preserved and started beating very well.”

The exact reason why cocaine helps sustain hearts that are about to be used for a transplant hasn’t been entirely determined, but Dr Mohiuddin told Vice: “It will be a great advance if this process is approved by the regulatory agencies here also, as we cannot get hearts usually within the span of two to three hours.”

“This will allow us to get hearts from other states,” he said. Xenotransplantation is the word used for transplanting non-human organs into people, and is seen by many as the most realistic solution to the shortage of human organs available for donation. Several successful transplants of pig kidneys into human patients have occurred in just the last few months.

Dr Mohiuddin told Vice that when he was growing up in Karachi in Pakistan, the word for “pig” was taboo in the home. “My mother used to make me gargle,” he said. “It was a big no-no in my family. It was forbidden in our home.”

The recipient of the pig heart provided by Revivicor, a Swedish biotech company, is a 57-year-old man who’s in recovery.

“Almost 150,000 people lose their lives a year just in the US, you can calculate how many more throughout the world lose their lives just because organs are not available,” Dr Mohiuddin said. “If this technique is successful, we will be able to save almost all of them.”

“Many times I thought that I don’t want to do this,” said Dr Mohiuddin, who came to the US in 1992. “There are so many issues in xenotransplantation that, in the back of my mind, I always used to think whether we will ever be able to take it to the clinic.”

“We have manipulated the genes of these pigs in a way that it becomes a little bit closer to humans in terms of immunology. We did not convert it into human, but we changed the genes in a way that the rejection was delayed,” the doctor told Vice. “It’s like a transplant from human to human, where you still have to use drugs but you know you can control it. If we had not done that, the rejection happens within minutes and the organ is useless.”

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