In January 2022, 57-year-old David Bennett, Sr., was suffering from terminal heart disease when he made history—and grabbed headlines—as the first person to receive a genetically modified pig’s heart. The groundbreaking operation inspired millions and heralded a new frontier in transplant science.
Bennett, Sr., lived for two months with his donor heart before his condition deteriorated and he was administered palliative care when it was clear he would not recover. David Bennett, Jr., said his father will be remembered for his humor, his kindness, and his ardent belief in the power of education.
It was that legacy that helped make a rare opportunity a reality for the Silversword community.
On the afternoon of May 31, about 100 Chaminade faculty members and students gathered for “Advances in Porcine Xenotransplantation,” a virtual forum with Bennett, Sr.’s, medical team and his son. The event was an opportunity for attendees to unpack the latest on the first-of-its-kind transplant, while also learning more about David Bennett, Sr., the “goofy” patient and beloved father and grandfather.
“It’s an honor and privilege to do this for my dad, who helped to advance science,” David Bennett, Jr., told participants. “He was always generous with his time and he always reminded me how proud he was of me. My dad was somebody who had lots of friends and who got along with people very well.”
Dr. Bartley Griffith, the world-renowned cardiothoracic surgeon who performed the surgery at the University of Maryland Medical Center, said Bennett, Sr., was a “terrible candidate” for the operation “in the truest sense of the word.” His overall health was poor and his ability to fight infections low.
“He would be classified as almost untreatable by transplantation standards,” Griffith said.
He was also deemed ineligible for a traditional heart transplant.
“The only thing about Dave that made him a great candidate was his toughness,” Griffith told participants, adding genetically modified pig hearts had only ever before been transplanted into non-human primates. “We didn’t know if the pig heart would work for two minutes, two days, two months or two years. The testing of this was just done in animals and they have a different immune system.”
Dr. Genevieve Griffiths, Dr. Claire Wright and Dr. Sandra Bourgette-Henry, of Chaminade, moderated the conversation and presented questions gathered in advance from students and members of the faculty.
Wright, an associate professor of Biology, called the forum a great opportunity to learn about the scientific and human aspects of a massive medical innovation. “This was a human who meant so much to his family and friends and now leaves us with this wonderful legacy,” she said.
Griffith, the surgeon, agreed. “We are doing exactly what Dave Bennett, Jr., requested of us, which is to learn something and to spread that learning to those who are interested,” he said. Griffith added there is still much to discover about the transplant itself and about Bennett, Sr.’s, cause of death.
“We are still working with tissues to take a deep dive on what really happened,” Griffith said.
Dr. Kapil Saharia, an assistant professor of Medicine at UMMC’s Institute of Human Virology and Bennett’s infectious disease specialist, said the transplant underscores just how far transplant science has come in the last decade alone. “I think this is setting the stage for really bigger steps,” he said.
Dr. Alison Grazioli, UMMC medical director and the head of the Cardiac Surgery Intensive Care Unit, added Bennett, Sr.’s, transplant was “in many regards a success. We learned so much from Mr. Bennett and will continue to do so. It is everybody’s great hope that xenotransplantation will continue to improve.”
Grazioli spent long days—for months—caring for Bennett, Sr., and said she built strong relationships with him and his family along the way. “The greatest thing we got out of it was getting to know Dave Bennett, Jr., and his family,” she told attendees. “All of those unexpected things and all the hurdles that we had to overcome, it was made so much easier that we developed relationships with such great people.”
In response to a question about what’s next for animal organ transplants, Grazioli said more breakthroughs are around the corner. “There’s talk of clinical trials where we can, in a rigorous way … really get to define who should get these transplants and save the most lives,” she said.
“Mr. Bennett energized the science and I think you’re going to hear a lot more about it.”