Researchers are attempting to learn what killed the first person to receive a heart transplant from a pig.
A 57-year-old named David Bennett Sr. died in March just two months after the groundbreaking experimental transplant.
University of Maryland doctors said they found viral DNA inside the pig heart this past week. That being said, they did not find signs that this bug, called porcine cytomegalovirus, was causing an active infection.
However, there is a fear that animal-to-human transplants could introduce new kinds of infections to people.
And while the viruses are “latent….it could be a hitchhiker,” Dr. Bartley Griffith, the surgeon who performed Bennett’s transplant, told The Associated Press.
Reportedly development is underway of more tests to “make sure that we don’t miss these kinds of viruses,” added Dr. Muhammad Mohiuddin, scientific director of the university’s xenotransplant program.
The animal virus was first reported by MIT Technology Review, citing a scientific presentation Griffith gave to the American Society of Transplantation last month.
Doctors have tried using animal organs for months to save human lives in the past but without success. Bennett, who was dying and ineligible for a human heart transplant, underwent the last-ditch operation using a heart from a pig genetically modified to lower the risk that his immune system would rapidly reject such a foreign organ.
The donor pig was allegedly healthy, had passed testing required by the Food and Drug Administration to check for infections. It was also raised in a facility designed to prevent animals from spreading infections.
Griffith said his patient, who was very ill, had been recovering fairly well from the transplant. But one morning he woke up worse, with symptoms similar to an infection.
Doctors then ran numerous tests to try to understand the cause and gave Bennett a variety of antibiotics, antiviral medication and an immune-boosting treatment. But the pig heart became swollen, filled with fluid and eventually quit functioning.
“What was the virus doing, if anything, that might have caused the swelling in his heart?” Griffith asked. “Honestly we don’t know.”
The reaction also didn’t appear to be a typical organ rejection, he said, adding that they are still investigating.
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