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The University of Maryland Medical Center made history earlier this year when a team of surgeon-scientists transplanted a genetically modified pig heart into a human.

The groundbreaking Jan. 7 operation was the first of its kind and came after years of research, improved surgical techniques and innovations in patient care.

The patient, 57-year-old David Bennett Sr., had severe heart disease and agreed to receive the experimental pig’s heart after he was deemed ineligible for a human heart transplant. He died two months after the operation, but the initially successful procedure has been hailed as a sign of hope for thousands of patients with ailing hearts and other organs who face long waiting lists for human organs.

Some 6.5 million Americans suffer from heart failure, according to the UM Medical Center, but only about 3,500 heart transplants are performed in this county each year, largely because of the shortage of donor hearts.

“It was either die or do this transplant,” Bennet had said just before the transplant. “I want to live.”

He added that he wanted doctors to learn from his experience.

The surgery was led by Dr. Bartley P. Griffith and Dr. Muhammad M. Mohiuddin, co-directors of the center’s Cardiac Xenotransplantation Program.Despite the death, Mohiuddin said, “we gained invaluable insights learning that the genetically modified pig heart can function well within the human body while the immune system is adequately suppressed. We remain optimistic and plan on continuing our work in future clinical trials.”

Added Dr. Griffith: “As with any first-in-the-world transplant surgery, this one led to important concepts that we envision improving transplant outcomes and potentially provide life-saving benefits to future patients.”

This is a winner profile from The Daily Record's Health Care Heroes awards. Information for this profile was sourced from the honoree's application for the award.