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Patient in Groundbreaking Pig Heart Transplant Has a Criminal Record

An ailing Maryland man who received a pig’s heart last week in a pioneering transplant procedure has a criminal record stemming from an assault 34 years ago in which he repeatedly stabbed a young man, leaving him paralyzed.

The victim, Edward Shumaker, spent two decades in a wheelchair, paralyzed from the waist down, and suffered numerous medical complications including a stroke that left him cognitively impaired, before he died in 2007 at age 40, according to his sister, Leslie Shumaker Downey, of Frederick, Md.

The Washington Post first reported the transplant patient’s criminal record and the assault that led to it on Thursday. The revelations have prompted debate about how patients are selected for cutting-edge medical care.

The patient, David Bennett Sr., 57, is being closely monitored at the University of Maryland Medical Center for signs that his body is rejecting a heart received from a genetically modified pig. He was still doing well on Thursday, hospital officials said.

The assault occurred on April 30, 1988, when Mr. Shumaker, 22, was having a drink at a bar and talking with Mr. Bennett’s wife. In an apparent fit of jealousy, Mr. Bennett stabbed Mr. Shumaker in the back repeatedly.

The assault and its aftermath devastated the family, Ms. Downey said. “It crushed my parents,” she said. “It was just hell.”

He was charged with assault, battery and maiming with intent to murder, according to court records obtained by The New York Times, but was convicted on lesser charges of battery and carrying a concealed weapon and was sentenced to 10 years in prison. He was also ordered to pay Mr. Shumaker $29,824 in restitution, but Ms. Downey said he did not comply.

In an attempt to recover his substantial medical costs, Mr. Shumaker and his family sued Mr. Bennett and were awarded $3.4 million in damages, court records show. Ms. Downey said the family never received any money.

“The transplant gave him life,” Ms. Downey said of Mr. Bennett. “But my brother never got a second chance at life. Ed struggled every day for 19 years. No one deserves what he went through.”

But Mr. Bennett’s doctors said that such unsettling histories do not disqualify patients from getting cutting-edge medical procedures.

Officials at the University of Maryland Medical Center, where the transplant operation was performed, said in a statement that health care providers were committed to treating all patients, regardless of their backgrounds or life circumstances.

“It is the solemn obligation of any hospital or health care organization to provide lifesaving care to every patient who comes through their doors based on their medical needs,” the officials said.

“Any other standard of care would set a dangerous precedent and would violate the ethical and moral values that underpin the obligation physicians and caregivers have to all patients in their care.”

Credit…Byron Dillard, via Associated Press

Through the medical center, Mr. Bennett Sr.’s son, David Bennett Jr., who was a young boy when the assault took place, declined to comment on his father’s criminal background.

“I do not wish to speak about my father’s past,” he said in a statement provided through the University of Maryland. “My intent is to focus on the groundbreaking surgery and my father’s wish to contribute to the science and potentially to save patient lives in the future.”

Doctors do not usually vet patients for whether they are deserving of treatment, said Karen J. Maschke, a research scholar at the Hastings Center and editor of Ethics & Human Research.

“There’s a longstanding standard in medical ethics that physicians don’t pick and choose who they treat,” she said. The question has arisen in the context of incarcerated people and enemies in war, and more recently people with Covid who chose not to get vaccinated, she noted.

“Where would you draw the line if you picked and chose?” Dr. Maschke asked.

The outrage expressed on social media toward Mr. Bennett Sr. is not justified, argued Arthur Caplan, professor of bioethics at N.Y.U. Grossman School of Medicine. The transplant is not only the first of its kind — it is highly experimental and may well fail, he said.

“To be clear, he didn’t take a human organ from anybody,” Dr. Caplan said. “Nobody died because this guy got a pig heart.”

The heart transplanted into Mr. Bennett came from a genetically engineered pig provided by Revivicor, a regenerative medicine company in Blacksburg, Va.

The pig’s genome carried 10 modifications, including genes inactivated in order to reduce aggressive human rejection responses, and to prevent the heart from continuing to grow after it was implanted.

Six human genes were inserted to make the porcine organs more tolerable to the human immune system.

There is an acute shortage of organs for people with failing kidneys, hearts, lungs and other organs, and the hope is that perfecting the science of transplanting organs from genetically altered animals will usher in a new era when patients will no longer die while waiting for a replacement kidney or heart.

Susan C. Beachy contributed research.

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Ciencias

How The mRNA Vaccines Were Made: Halting Progress and Happy Accidents

“I said, ‘I am an RNA scientist. I can do anything with RNA,’” Dr. Karikó recalled telling Dr. Weissman. He asked her: Could you make an H.I.V. vaccine?

“Oh yeah, oh yeah, I can do it,” Dr. Karikó said.

Up to that point, commercial vaccines had carried modified viruses or pieces of them into the body to train the immune system to attack invading microbes. An mRNA vaccine would instead carry instructions — encoded in mRNA — that would allow the body’s cells to pump out their own viral proteins. This approach, Dr. Weissman thought, would better mimic a real infection and prompt a more robust immune response than traditional vaccines did.

It was a fringe idea that few scientists thought would work. A molecule as fragile as mRNA seemed an unlikely vaccine candidate. Grant reviewers were not impressed, either. His lab had to run on seed money that the university gives new faculty members to get started.

By that time, it was easy to synthesize mRNA in the lab to encode any protein. Drs. Weissman and Karikó inserted mRNA molecules into human cells growing in petri dishes and, as expected, the mRNA instructed the cells to make specific proteins. But when they injected mRNA into mice, the animals got sick.

“Their fur got ruffled, they hunched up, they stopped eating, they stopped running,” Dr. Weissman said. “Nobody knew why.”

For seven years, the pair studied the workings of mRNA. Countless experiments failed. They wandered down one blind alley after another. Their problem was that the immune system sees mRNA as a piece of an invading pathogen and attacks it, making the animals sick while destroying the mRNA.

Eventually, they solved the mystery. The researchers discovered that cells protect their own mRNA with a specific chemical modification. So the scientists tried making the same change to mRNA made in the lab before injecting it into cells. It worked: The mRNA was taken up by cells without provoking an immune response.

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Ciencias

Howard Solomon, 94, Dies; His Business Success Had a Personal Connection

“Forest Pharmaceuticals deliberately chose to pursue corporate profits over its obligations to the F.D.A. and the American public,” Carmen Ortiz, the U.S. attorney for Massachusetts, said when the settlement was announced.

The company denied the allegations. In a statement at the time, Mr. Solomon said, “We remain dedicated to ensuring that we operate in full compliance with all laws and regulations.”

In 2011, Forest Labs won a proxy fight against the shareholder activist Carl C. Icahn, who had argued that the company had, among other things, lost billions of dollars of shareholder value over the previous decade. Mr. Icahn continued to pursue Forest Labs with a second proxy fight in 2012, which ended with one of his nominees elected to the company’s board.

In a letter to Mr. Icahn during that fight, Mr. Solomon wrote: “Your discourse thus far has shown a striking lack of strategic ideas. Instead, it has been replete with wild and baseless accusations, innuendo and distortion of facts.”

Still, at some point, Mr. Solomon reached out to Mr. Icahn, and they had a series of dinners.

“We got friendly,” Mr. Icahn said in a phone interview. “I thought he was a nice gentleman, a courtly guy.” He added: “I didn’t agree with the way he ran the business necessarily, but he was a nice guy who was thrilled with the outcome. He made a lot of money.”

In 2013, Mr. Solomon announced his retirement as chief executive and was replaced by Brent Saunders, an executive friendly with Mr. Icahn. Then, in early 2014, Actavis (now Allergan) paid $25 billion to acquire Forest Labs. Mr. Solomon, still the chairman, left after the acquisition and formed a family investment firm with his younger son, David, who had been a Forest Labs executive.

In addition to his sons, Mr. Solomon is survived by his wife, Sarah Billinghurst Solomon, a former assistant general manager of artistic affairs at the Metropolitan Opera, and five grandchildren. His first wife, Carolyn (Bower) Solomon, died in 1991.

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Ciencias

The Kunga Was a Status Symbol Long Before the Thoroughbred

In ancient Mesopotamia 4,500 years ago, long before horses arrived in the region, another spirited member of the equine family, the kunga, took a starring role in pulling four-wheeled wagons into battle.

Archaeologists had suspected that these animals — depicted in art, their sales recorded in cuneiform writing, their bodies sometimes laid to rest in rich burial sites — were the result of some kind of crossbreeding. But proof was lacking.

On Friday, a team of researchers reported on more than a decade of research in the journal Science Advances, concluding that studies of ancient DNA showed the kunga was a cross between a female donkey (Equus Africanus asinus) and a male Syrian wild ass (Equus hemionus hemippus).

The kunga is the first known instance of a human-engineered hybrid of two species, a production far beyond the traditional processes of the domestication of animals, the researchers found.

Eva-Maria Geigl, a specialist in ancient genomes at the University of Paris, and one of the scientists who did the study, said the breeding of kungas was really “early bioengineering” that developed into a kind of ancient biotech industry.

Like mules, which are hybrids between horses and donkeys, and which were created much later, the kungas were sterile. Each new kunga was a one-off, a mating between a wild ass stallion and a donkey.

The stallions had to be captured and kept in captivity, even though they were highly aggressive, as modern records have indicated. Dr. Geigl said that the director of a zoo in Austria, where the last captive Syrian wild asses died, described them as “furious.” Archaeological records show that a breeding center in Nagar (now Tell Brak, Syria) shipped the young kungas to other cities. They were costly animals, status symbols, and were used in war and military ceremonies.

Kungas held their high status for at least 500 years, Dr. Geigl said. Horses did not appear until around 4,000 years ago to take their place in battle and ceremony, and to contribute to the creation of other hybrids. Before the current research, the oldest known hybrid was a mule from a site in Turkey dating to 3,000 years ago. Members of the same team reported on that find in 2020.

The research team had to cope with the very poor preservation of fossils from desert areas, but used a variety of techniques to examine ancient DNA. Laurent Frantz, a paleogenomics expert at Ludwig Maximilian University of Munich, who was not involved in the study, said that despite these difficulties, the “results were very convincing,” showing that people “were experimenting with hybrid equids long before the arrival of the horse.”

Fiona Marshall, an archaeologist at Washington University in St. Louis, who has researched the prehistory of donkeys and their domestication, said the study was “enormously significant” partly because it showed that the breeders had clear intentions. The early process of domestication was always murky — probably part accident, part human intervention — but this research showed what the ancient Syrians were after.

“People wanted the qualities of a wild animal,” she said. Donkeys might have been tamer than their ancestors, the African wild ass, but the breeders in Mesopotamia wanted to back breed to other wild asses for strength and speed — and perhaps size. Although the last known living examples of the Syrian wild ass were very small, a little more than three feet at the withers, older animals of the same species were larger.

Dr. Geigl — who collaborated on the research with Thierry Grange at the University of Paris, E. Andrew Bennett, now with the Institute of Vertebrate Paleontology and Paleoanthropology in Beijing, Jill Weber at the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology and others — said that the team sequenced DNA from numerous sources, including modern donkeys, horses and several species of wild asses, and museum samples.

Of particular importance were the bones of 44 kungas interred at a rich burial site in Syria called Umm el-Marra. Those skeletons had earlier led Dr. Weber and others to hypothesize that they were hybrids and that they were the kungas described in tablets and represented in art.

Their teeth showed bit marks and indicated they had been fed a special diet. The new research used DNA from those kungas to compare to other species and determine that these animals were, as suspected, the result of breeding female donkeys and male Syrian wild asses.

The research team also sequenced DNA from a Syrian wild ass found at Gobekli Tepe in Turkey, an 11,000-year-old site where humans gathered for purposes still being studied, and from two of the last animals of the species, held at a zoo in Vienna.

It is a species that no longer exists. The kunga can’t be recreated, Dr. Bennett said. Donkeys are plentiful, of course, but the last known Syrian wild asses died in the late 1920s. One was shot in the wild and the other died in a zoo in Vienna.

“The recipe for making the kunga was unknown for thousands of years,” Dr. Bennett said. “And we finally decode it not even 100 years since one element has become extinct.”

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