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Sadly, David Bennett Sr., the 57-year-old patient with terminal heart disease who became the first to receive a genetically modified pig heart transplant, has passed away.

According to a statement from the University of Maryland Medical Center in Baltimore, where the transplant was performed, Mr. Bennett passed away Tuesday.

He lived for two months after receiving the transplant on January 7.

Although the medical center didn’t cite the exact cause of his death, they said Mr. Bennett’s condition began to worsen a few days before his death.

“We are devastated by the loss of Mr. Bennett. He proved to be a brave and noble patient who fought all the way to the end. We extend our sincerest condolences to his family,” Bartley P. Griffith, MD, who performed the transplant, said in the statement.

Muhammad M. Mohiuddin, MD, director of the cardiac xenotransplantation program at University of Maryland School of Medicine, said of Bennet:

 “We are grateful to Mr. Bennett for his unique and historic role in helping to contribute to a vast array of knowledge to the field of xenotransplantation.”  

Xenotransplantation is the process of transplanting organs between different species. 

But why did Mr. Bennet want a pig heart?

Mr. Bennett needed mechanical support to stay alive. Unfortunately, the supply of human organ donors, and especially hearts, is exceedingly small. It leaves care providers in the impossible position of having to choose who they try to save and who turn down. To aid in that process, the requirements necessary to qualify for a transplant are very difficult to meet.

When Mr. Bennet was rejected for a standard heart transplant at the University of Maryland Medical Center and other centers, it seemed that the genetically modified pig heart was a solution than just giving up.

Why a pig? It turns out that a pig’s heart is very similar to a humans in both size and structure!

After the surgery, the transplanted pig heart performed well for several weeks without any signs of rejection. As a result, Bennett was able to do physical therapy to help regain strength and  spend more time with his family.

In a statement three days after the successful surgery, Dr. Mohiuddin explained, “This organ transplant demonstrated for the first time that a genetically modified animal heart can function like a human heart without immediate rejection by the body. We have gained invaluable insights learning that the genetically modified pig heart can function well within the human body while the immune system is adequately suppressed.”

“We remain optimistic and plan on continuing our work in future clinical trials,” he said.

Mr. Bennett’s son, David Bennett Jr, said that the family is “profoundly grateful for the life-extending opportunity” given to his father by the “stellar team” at the University of Maryland School of Medicine and the University of Maryland Medical Center. 

“We were able to spend some precious weeks together while he recovered from the transplant surgery, weeks we would not have had without this miraculous effort. We also hope that what was learned from his surgery will benefit future patients and hopefully one day end the organ shortage that costs so many lives each year,” he said.

While this story ends in disappointment, that Mr. Bennet lived as long as he did gives hope to thousands all over the world waiting and praying for donor organs that will allow them more time with loved ones.

One step at a time, we’re walking into an age of miracles.