While Bucknell professor Dr. James Baish isn’t a surgeon, he can appreciate the impressive accomplishments of his fellow university alum, Dr. Bartley Griffith.

A week ago, Griffith, a 1970 Bucknell graduate, performed a seven-hour transplant surgery at the University of Maryland Medical Center in Baltimore, the first transplant of a pig heart into a human patient.

Two decades ago, Griffith was part of the group that started the biomedical engineering program at Bucknell. Baish, now a professor of biomedical engineering at Bucknell and a 1979 BU grad, said he met with Griffith while developing the program.

“He was very enthusiastic about what we were doing,” Baish said. His impression of Griffith was that he was “a man of a lot of energy and ideas. He is a high-energy, creative individual.”

Creativity was needed to get David Bennett, a 57-year-old Maryland handyman, a new heart. Bennett’s condition — heart failure and an irregular heartbeat — made him ineligible for a human heart transplant or a heart pump, so they chose this option.

Prior attempts at such transplants — or xenotransplantation — have failed, largely because patients’ bodies rapidly rejected the animal organ. The difference this time: The Maryland surgeons used a heart from a pig that had undergone gene-editing to remove a sugar in its cells that’s responsible for that hyper-fast organ rejection. Several biotech companies are developing pig organs for human transplant; the one used for Friday’s operation came from Revivicor, a subsidiary of United Therapeutics.

Baish said “I’m not a surgeon or cardiologist. I teach fluid flow in the body but I can read what’s happening to have an understanding,” saying pig hearts are anatomically similar to human hearts with the logistics of getting everything hooked up. He said pig hearts are about the same size and that blood vessels are in the same places.

“Pig tissue would normally be rejected by the human body. Tissue match is essential which could mean taking drugs for the rest of their lives,” he said.

Dr. Muhammad Mohiuddin, scientific director of the Maryland university’s animal-to-human transplant program, said the transplant was years in the making.

“This is the culmination of years of highly complicated research to hone this technique in animals with survival times that have reached beyond nine months.” Mohiuddin said. “The successful procedure provided valuable information to help the medical community improve this potentially life-saving method in future patients.”

What’s next

“One of the holy grails of biomedical engineering has been to develop a fake heart. The availability for human hearts for transplants is limited. The right recipient and right heart have to align,” Baish said, noting the technology behind the artificial heart has come a long way, dating back to 1969.

The first permanent artificial heart replacement was in 1982 on a 61-year-old man, but Baish said permanent total replacements of hearts still are not at all routine. Partial replacements for hearts have been in use for a while, Baish noted even former vice president Dick Cheney had one done.

The Bucknell professor speculated on what the future could look like for potential heart replacement recipients.

“The technologies have been leapfrogging each other for decades. A lot of people who have been on waiting lists will have a much more promising future,” said Baish. “If it replaces the goal of replacing a mechanical artificial heart remains to be seen. This could really change the landscape for patients.”

The Associated Press contributed to this story.

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