Lawrence Faucette, the 58-year-old man who in September became the second person in history to receive a genetically modified pig heart transplant at the University of Maryland Medical Center, died last week after starting to show signs of organ rejection.
Faucette, who was dying of heart disease when he received the transplant Sept. 20, lived for nearly six weeks following the procedure, the University of Maryland School of Medicine said last week in a news release.
“Mr. Faucette’s last wish was for us to make the most of what we have learned from our experience, so others may be guaranteed a chance for a new heart when a human organ is unavailable,” said Dr. Bartley Griffith, the clinical director of the cardiac xenotransplantation program at the University of Maryland School of Medicine, who co-led the surgical procedure with Dr. Muhammad Mohiuddin at the University of Maryland Medical Center. “He then told the team of doctors and nurses who gathered around him that he loved us. We will miss him tremendously.”
Following Faucette’s surgery at the Baltimore hospital, the Frederick resident spent time with family members, played cards with his wife, Ann, and made significant progress in his recovery, the news release said. A video released by the medical school about two weeks ago showed the patient slowly pedaling a recumbent exercise bike with the help of a physical therapist. As of Oct. 20, Faucette no longer required any external support to help his heart function, and doctors were weaning him from the drugs initially needed to support his heart.
In recent days, however, Faucette’s heart began to show the initial signs of organ rejection — the biggest challenge to transplant patients, including those who receive traditional transplants with human organs, the medical school said in the news release. Rejection happens when a patient’s immune system attacks the transplanted organ or tissue.
David Bennett, the first patient to receive a transplanted pig heart, died about two months after the January 2022 surgery from heart failure. As researchers and doctors did with Bennett, they intend to conduct an extensive analysis of Faucette’s experience with the transplant to determine what could be improved for the next time, said Mohiuddin, the scientific and program director of the cardiac xenotransplantation program at the University of Maryland School of Medicine.
Both Faucette and Bennett received the experimental transplant through the U.S. Food and Drug Administration’s “compassionate use” process, which is used when an experimental medical product is the only option available for a patient faced with a serious or life-threatening medical condition.
“We cannot express enough gratitude to Mr. Faucette and his family for enabling us to continue to make significant advancements towards making xenotransplants a reality,” Mohiuddin said. “Mr. Faucette was a scientist who not only read and interpreted his own biopsies but who understood the important contribution he was making in advancing this field.”
Faucette, a Navy veteran and father of two, was in end-stage heart failure when he was admitted to the University of Maryland Medical Center on Sept. 14. Shortly before his operation, his heart stopped and required resuscitation. He was deemed ineligible for a traditional heart transplant due to his advanced medical conditions, including peripheral vascular disease.
The transplanted pig’s heart performed well without any evidence of rejection during his first month of recovery, according to Tuesday’s news release. He was treated with anti-rejection drugs, as well as an experimental antibody therapy designed to suppress his immune system and prevent his body from damaging or rejecting his new heart. The donor pig also was genetically modified to reduce the likelihood of rejection and prevent the excessive growth of heart tissue.
Xenotransplantation, the transplantation of organs or tissues from an animal donor into a human recipient, carries a unique set of risks, including potentially transmitting an unknown pathogen from the animal to the human. The procedure also is more likely to trigger an immune response, which can cause an immediate rejection of the organ and kill the patient.
The experimental procedure, however, has the potential to save thousands of lives. There are about 110,000 Americans currently waiting for an organ transplant, and more than 6,000 die each year before getting one.
It takes “Herculean efforts” to move the transplant field forward, said Dr. Christine Lau — surgeon-in-chief at the University of Maryland Medical Center and chair of the the University of Maryland School of Medicine’s Department of Surgery — in Tuesday’s news release.
“Lung transplants took decades to perfect, and the giants of those days carried a lot on their shoulders,” Lau said. “Drs. Griffith, Mohiuddin and their entire treatment team, as well as Mr. Faucette and his family, are our heroes of today.”
In a statement included in the news release, Ann Faucette described her husband — whom she called Larry — as a man who was always thinking of others. While Lawrence Faucette started the journey with an open mind and complete confidence in his surgical team, she said, he knew his time was short. He never imagine he would survive as long as he did, or provide as much data to the xenotransplant program, she said.
“He was not only thinking about how this journey was helping to advance the xenotransplant program, but how it affected his family. An example is his last night when he was lying in the bed contemplating the end and worrying about his sister and if she had slept yet,” Ann Faucette said.
“Larry’s family continues to be in awe of the man that he was and how he has shaped our lives. He can never be forgotten.”