Pig Heart Transplant: All Revolution, or What?

DWhat is believed to be the earliest dental fillings were made from beeswax. From today’s point of view, a good six and a half thousand years later, this can be seen as a daring attempt at healing. But it could just as well be celebrated as a groundbreaking step in minimally invasive dentistry after people had tried for thousands of years to free decayed teeth from infected tissue with sharp stone blades. So god knows, antibacterial beeswax in teeth was progress, maybe even a revolution.

Unfortunately, it is not known whether this far-reaching social change that was emerging was actually perceived in this way – let alone propagated in this way. Edward Donnall Thomas, who treated the first leukemia patient with stem cells more than sixty years ago – and lost the first ten patients, for which he was criticized – has long hardly considered himself a revolutionary. In Japan, still the latest thing in medicine, the first paraplegic accident victims were recently treated with induced, i.e. programmed, stem cells in the university hospital in Keio. Her healing would certainly be a revolution – one of almost biblical proportions. But you don’t hear anything from the Japanese.

The American surgeons from Baltimore, on the other hand, who recently transplanted a genetically modified pig’s heart into a fifty-seven-year-old terminally ill patient with heart failure, were publicly acknowledged after significant communicative initiative of their own, as if the experimental implantation of the xenograft – the alien organ – was the execution of a medical revolution par excellence. Anyone who is familiar with the bumpy research history of risky xenotransplantation or how the Society of Cardiac Surgery has had to help manage the deficits in replacement organs for decades, prefers to leave it at the less radical term visionary. In any case, beeswax fillings were at least visionary at the time. And the revolutionary mills of medicine still seldom grind much faster – in some cases, however, they do it louder than ever.


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