Society of Bioethics and Medicine
The Potential of Pig Hearts to Save Humans
Written by Jonathan Gao
Edited by Elizabeth Badalov
Picture this: you lie in a small examination room as the physician performs the same old physical examination. The thin hospital gown, which never fits well anyways, is draped clumsily over you. A loosely-fit cannula hangs around your nose to help supplement oxygen; your breathing is steady, but it is heavy and shaky. All the while, you can only think about how there’s nothing more that you want to do than spend more time with your family.
The weighing scale screen ominously spits out its bright red analog numbers: 335.
Scoffingly, you crack a few smug jokes about your health and how they’ll be putting you in a casket soon. Obesity, bipolar disorder, and the ailments brought on from your bad heart have marginalized your life, reducing it to one riddled with unpronounceable medications and hospital visits that never seem to help. Despite the doctor’s best reassurance that no one will be digging any grave for you anytime soon, you are growing complacent. You insist on going home if the hospital’s heart transplant committee, who received a new heart from a deceased donor that same morning, decides against granting you the transplant. Up against you is the careless, drug-addicted Trip Granger, whose wealthy father, Emmett, is offering the hospital $25 million and Janet Pike, an elderly woman who has no support system and is rude to the hospital staff.
This was the ethical dilemma that was presented in the film “The God Committee'', an adaptation based on Mark St. Germain’s play. Set in a New York City hospital, a group of doctors that serve on the heart transplant committee are confronted with a tough decision: who, out of these three patients, will be receiving the heart? The character Dr. Andre Boxer is steadfast in his assertion that the “heart is just a muscle” and that it should be reserved for younger, healthier patients. In stark contrast, Dr. Jordan Taylor’s holistic view maintains that the heart should go to whoever is the most deserving, regardless of age or condition.
What makes this film even more intriguing is how it depicts side-by-side scenes that take place in the present and the future. Dr. Boxer, who has fallen ill and aged seven years, is now the one in need of a heart transplant. He has transitioned into the private sector and is seeking investors to fund X Origins, his research endeavor that focuses on xenotransplantation, the transplantation of nonhuman organs into humans. Funding the entire research project from its inception was Emmett Granger, the wealthy father who pressured Dr. Boxer into giving his son the heart transplant years ago. While his son ultimately receives the heart, he dies six months later from another episode of drug abuse.
This film offers the audience a glimpse into the sheer number of ethical, financial, and health factors that go into the decision-making behind actual organ transplants. Intertwined into this decision-making are the innate biases that humans have against one another, whether it be for financial gain or otherwise. However, with novel procedures such as xenotransplantations coming to the forefront of medicine, we may soon find that physicians can perhaps transplant organs, and in turn, save hundreds of lives non exclusively.
In a major step, a xenotransplantation on David Bennett Sr. from Maryland was successfully performed earlier this year. Mr. Bennett, a 57 year old who was bedridden leading up to the procedure, received a genetically modified pig’s heart. Despite being ineligible for a heart transplant, doctors from the University of Maryland Medical Center were granted the ability to perform this life-saving experimental surgery on Mr. Bennett, who would have otherwise succumbed to terminal heart disease. It was deemed that this surgery was his “only option for survival”.
You may ask, why a pig’s heart? Well, the anatomical makeup between the heart of a pig and that of a human are strikingly similar. Not to mention that pigs are easy to raise and their organs can develop quicker than those of other animals. Yet the most prominent issue precluding more animal hearts from being xenotransplanted into humans is organ rejection. The body’s immune system acts as a sentinel by protecting us from foreign cells, such as viruses. Should the immune system be compromised, the body will be prone to serious infections. But in this case, the pig’s genes were altered so that the human body would not reject the heart and so that the heart’s cells itself did not rapidly proliferate after transplantation.
Three days after the operation, the University of Maryland Medical Center reported that David Bennett was doing well. It seems as if, finally, the years of extensive medical research conducted for the sole purpose of procuring healthy, biocompatible organs have paid off. Mr. Bennett’s surgical operation was a breakthrough success; it can allow physicians to grant more than half a million Americans the organs that they need sooner, and in the process, remove any and all emotional, financial, and ethical biases tied into deciding who gets to live or die.
2022 News - University of Maryland School of Medicine Faculty Scientists and Clinicians Perform Historic First Successful Transplant of Porcine Heart into Adult Human with End-Stage Heart Disease | University of Maryland School of Medicine. https://www.medschool.umaryland.edu/news/2022/University-of-Maryland-School-of-Medicine-Faculty-Scientists-and-Clinicians-Perform-Historic-First-Successful-Transplant-of-Porcine-Heart-into-Adult-Human-with-End-Stage-Heart-Disease.html. Accessed 13 Mar. 2022.
Rabin, Roni Caryn. “In a First, Man Receives a Heart From a Genetically Altered Pig.” The New York Times, 10 Jan. 2022. NYTimes.com, https://www.nytimes.com/2022/01/10/health/heart-transplant-pig-bennett.html.
“Man Gets Genetically-Modified Pig Heart in World-First Transplant.” BBC News, 11 Jan. 2022. www.bbc.com, https://www.bbc.com/news/world-us-canada-59944889.
“In First Surgery of Its Kind, Maryland Man Receives Heart Transplanted from Genetically Modified Pig.” Washington Post. www.washingtonpost.com, https://www.washingtonpost.com/science/2022/01/11/pig-heart-transplant-genetically-modified/. Accessed 13 Mar. 2022
Schager, Nick. “‘The God Committee’ Review: A Sturdy Medical Morality Play.” Variety, 2 July 2021, https://variety.com/2021/film/reviews/the-god-committee-review-1235007397/.
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