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The man who passed away shortly after having a pig heart transplanted may have died due to a virus the animal was carrying.
David Bennett, 57, made history back in January when he became the first human to receive a genetically edited pig heart.
Within days of the operation Mr Bennett, who had been near-to-death, was sitting up in bed and the operation was hailed as a success by surgeon Bartley Griffith of the University of Maryland School of Medicine.
Speaking at the time, Griffith said: “It was quite amazing. You go talk to this gentleman and he’s got a pig heart. Literally, he has a pig heart.”
However, weeks later Mr Bennett’s condition began to deteriorate and he tragically died two months after receiving the transplant.
In a statement from the University of Maryland School of Medicine, at the time, a spokesperson said ‘no obvious cause had been identified at the time of death’ and that a report would be released in due course.
Now experts believe the pig used for the transplant was carrying a porcine virus that could have contributed to his death, the MIT Technology Review reports.
Griffith is quoted as saying at an American Society of Transplantation webinar: “We are beginning to learn why he passed on.”
He went on to say that the virus ‘maybe was the actor, or could be the actor, that set this whole thing off’.
If the virus theory is correct, it could mean that such issues are preventable and transplantations in the future could last ‘for years’.
Griffith added: “If this was an infection, we can likely prevent it in the future.”
However, Joachim Denner of the Institute of Virology at the Free University of Berlin, who has previously worked on studies looking into pig hearts transplanted in baboons, has said he doesn’t believe the virus is the sole cause of Mr Bennett death.
He said: “This patient was very, very, very ill. Do not forget that.
“Maybe the virus contributed, but it was not the sole reason.”
Following his death, Mr Bennett’s doctors hailed him as a courageous volunteer for going ahead with the groundbreaking surgery.
Griffith said: “These losses are hard. This was a patient. It wasn't an experiment to us.
“All he wanted to do was live. In fact, he was such a funny guy. On the way in to get his pig heart transplant, he looked at me and he said squarely, ‘Are you sure I can’t get a human heart?’”