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The pig heart transplanted into an American patient earlier this year in a landmark operation carried a porcine virus that may have derailed the experiment and contributed to his death two months later, say transplant specialists.

David Bennett Sr. was near death in January when he received a genetically edited pig heart in a pioneering between-species transplant that has been hailed as a success—and was, at first.

A few days after his heart was replaced with one from a pig, Bennett was sitting up in bed. His new heart was pumping fantastically and performing like a “rock star,” according to his transplant surgeon, Bartley Griffith of the University of Maryland School of Medicine.

But about 40 days later Bennett, who was 57, took a turn for the worse. After two months he was dead. In a statement released by the university in March, a spokesperson said there was “no obvious cause identified at the time of his death” and that a full report was pending.

Now MIT Technology Review has learned that Bennett’s heart was affected by porcine cytomegalovirus, a preventable infection that is linked to devastating effects on transplants.  

The presence of the pig virus and the desperate efforts to defeat it were described by Griffith during a webinar streamed online by the American Society of Transplantation on April 20. The issue is now a subject of wide discussion among specialists, who think the infection was a potential contributor to Bennett’s death and a possible reason why the heart did not last longer.

“We are beginning to learn why he passed on,” said Griffith, who believes that the virus “maybe was the actor, or could be the actor, that set this whole thing off.”

The heart swap in Maryland was a major test of xenotransplantation, the process of moving tissues between species. But because the special pigs raised to provide organs are supposed to be virus-free, it now appears that the experiment was compromised by an unforced error. The biotechnology company that raised and engineered the pigs, Revivicor, declined to comment and has made no public statement about the virus.

“It was surprising. That pig is supposed to be clean of all pig pathogens, and this is a significant one,” says Mike Curtis, CEO of eGenesis, a competing company that is also breeding pigs for transplant organs. “Without the virus, would Mr. Bennett have lived? We don’t know, but the infection didn’t help. It likely contributed to the failure.”

10-gene pig  

The detection of the pig virus in Bennett’s heart is not necessarily all bad news for xenotransplantation. If a pig virus played a role, it could mean a virus-free heart xenotransplant could last much longer. Some surgeons think the latest gene-modified organs could in theory keep beating for years—and more rigorous procedures should be able to screen out the virus.

“If this was an infection, we can likely prevent it in the future,” Griffith said during his presentation

The biggest obstacle to animal-organ transplants is the human immune system, which ferociously attacks foreign cells in a process called rejection. To avoid rejection, companies have been engineering pigs—removing some genes and adding others—to give their tissue a stealth profile that hides from immune attack.

The version used in Maryland came from a pig with 10 gene modifications developed by Revivicor, a subsidiary of United Therapeutics.

Following promising tests of such pig organs in baboons, three US transplant teams launched the first human studies starting in late 2021. Surgeons at New York University and the University of Alabama each attached pig kidneys to brain-dead people, but the University of Maryland went a step further when Griffith stitched a pig heart into Bennett’s chest in early January.

Transferring pig viruses to humans has been a worry—some fear xenotransplantation could set off a pandemic if a virus were to adapt inside a patient’s body and then spread to doctors and nurses. The concern could be serious enough to require lifelong monitoring for patients.

However, the specific type of virus found in Bennett’s donor heart is not believed capable of infecting human cells, says Jay Fishman, a specialist in transplant infections at Massachusetts General Hospital. Fishman thinks there is “no real risk to humans” of its spreading further.

Instead, the problem is that pig cytomegalovirus is linked to reactions that can damage the organ and the patient—with catastrophic results. Two years ago, for instance, German researchers reported that pig hearts transplanted into baboons lasted only a couple of weeks if the virus was present, while organs free from the infection could survive more than half a year.

Those researchers said they found “astonishingly high” virus levels in pig hearts removed from baboons. They

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By: Antonio Regalado
Title: The gene-edited pig heart given to a dying patient was infected with a pig virus
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Published Date: Wed, 04 May 2022 19:00:00 +0000

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Learning and listening in Amazonia

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We had just sat down to lunch with Dona Dada, an Indigenous Brazilian artisan, at her family farm in São Gabriel da Cachoeira. It was April of 2022, and my research colleagues and I were visiting to learn how she collects and processes plant fibers for use in her crafts. Before us were traditional foods that I was familiar with, including tambaqui fish and beiju de tapioca, a large, crunchy tapioca crepe cooked in a traditional clay oven. But I was intrigued by a bowl of what appeared to be a dark-brown lumpy sauce and asked what it was. “Saúvas,” replied Dona Dada. My friend Samy began laughing hysterically. Looking closer, I saw hundreds of fat, juicy ants floating in a bowl of broth and green onions. Dona Dada grabbed one and popped it in her mouth. I heard the crunch.

Although I’d never expected to dine on its bugs, the Amazon rainforest has always captivated my imagination with its lush landscapes, its rich biodiversity, and the profound wisdom of its Indigenous peoples. I was also drawn to this ecological wonder by my interest in applying materials science in a unique way to address issues related to sustainability and climate change. So I was excited to be able to venture into the Brazilian Amazon for the first time in the summer of 2019 through the MIT International Science and Technology Initiatives (MISTI) program. My desire was not just to do another internship; I wanted to understand the intersection of traditional knowledge and modern science to help solve the problems facing our world. And when I researched natural botanical resins in Santarém, a town in the Brazilian state of Pará, I developed an appreciation for the interconnectedness of Indigenous culture, materials, and music.

In the town of Alter do Chão, where my professor lived, traditional Paraense carimbó music dominated everyone’s social lives. As an undergraduate who was double-­majoring in music, I decided to join the town’s major carimbó group, Grupo Cobra Grande. Despite my rudimentary grasp of Portuguese, I knew that I could communicate with the group through music. With the help of offline Google Translate and charades, I managed to learn not only the intricate rhythms and dance moves involved in this traditional musical style, but also the meanings of the lyrics and the associated folklore. We began every rehearsal and performance with a song calling the mythical frog Muiraquitã into the Lago Verde lake to protect the town and the people from evil spirits. The dance moves in carimbó reflect stories about the famous Amazonian pink dolphin coming to land in the evenings to court young women—men wear hats to cover their dolphin spouts and dance in circles around the women like dolphins jumping in and out of the water.

Talia Khan in the foliage
Talia Khan ’20 in the
abandoned city of Velho Airão before she learned that killer ants had
driven its people away. Her friend had an allergic reaction when bitten, but luckily, Khan had an EpiPen.COURTESY OF THE AUTHOR

I was lucky enough to return to Brazil two years later as a Fulbright scholar in Manaus, Amazonas, where I got to study natural rainforest materials such as curauá fibers and Marasmius yanomami fungi in the lab, research their traditional uses in artisanal crafts, and explore their potential as sustainable structural materials. I also volunteered at the Nobre Academia de Robótica, an organization that gives children from impoverished backgrounds, including Indigenous youths from the São Sebastião community, free access to education in coding, science, and technology. They learn to use drones for land surveillance and develop sensors to monitor environmental conditions, honoring their cultural legacy and extending it with technological capabilities.

When I met a local clarinetist named Abner at the Manaus synagogue, he invited me to watch as he recorded music with Eliberto Barroncas, an art professor at a local university who played instruments he crafted from repurposed “found” objects such as cardboard tubes, rubber tires, and marbles. As Abner played the clarinet, Barroncas created a background that immersed the listener in the sounds of Amazonia: croaking frogs, flowing water, shaking leaves. Afterward, we discussed the interconnectedness of

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By: Talia Khan ’20
Title: Learning and listening in Amazonia
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Published Date: Wed, 28 Feb 2024 12:00:00 +0000

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MIT Hobby Shop rebuilt

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When Fine Woodworking magazine printed its first issue in the winter of 1975, a bowl made by Irving Fischman, SM ’72, PhD ’75, was on the cover. Though he had started woodworking in the MIT Hobby Shop only a few years before, he had already become highly skilled at the craft and found a lifelong passion.

“Woodworking is so fascinating that at some point in my grad school career I was thinking of doing it professionally,” says Fischman, a retired real estate developer and business consultant. “I really think working with your hands is part of human nature, and it’s so satisfying.”

Founded by students in 1938, and now used by more than 200 members of the MIT community each semester, the Hobby Shop relocated in fall 2023 when a newly renovated space—the former home of the MIT Museum store—became available in Building N51.

Intended from the start as a place for nonacademic projects, the shop continues to give many a welcome break from other work. “Because you have to concentrate on what you’re doing, you don’t think about the homework problem or the research you’re doing. You let that happen in the back of your mind,” Fischman says.

Tess Smidt ’12, an assistant professor of electrical engineering and computer science, agrees. “It’s a different way of being creative than what I do in my research, which is mostly on the computer,” she says. “It’s nice to be able to use my hands; it’s really a treat.”

The refurbished, fully equipped wood and metal shop offers membership to students, staff, faculty, alumni, and their spouses. (The only requirement for alums is new member orientation and a fee of $200 per term or $500 per year.) Members are particularly enjoying the tall windows of the new shop, which faces Massachusetts Avenue.

“It’s like night and day, literally,” Smidt says of the difference from the old space, which was in the basement of Building W31 for 65 years. “Having the sunlight and the space, you want to hang out there more.”

Entering a new age

Much has changed over the years, Fischman says. “The original shop had a printing press and a darkroom, and people used to make their own electronics. There’s been quite a transformation, especially to the digital-controlled machine age,” he says.

The new shop is equipped with a suite of state-of-the-art machines, including a computer numerical control (CNC) router, 3D printers, a welding station, and a precision water-jet cutter. It has all the staples—planers, jointers, lathes, and hand tools—and it’s got a new, quieter air filtration system. “Incredible resources went into this shop,” Smidt says.

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MIT faculty members Alexander Rakhlin, PhD ’06, (left) and Tess Smidt ’12 work on furniture projects in the new MIT Hobby Shop.

One of Fischman’s favorite tools is the giant belt sander, which allows him to sand a whole tabletop at one time. “You get this wonderful finish on your project,” he says. “Years ago, you’d have a little hand sander, and it would scratch the board and do all sorts of terrible things.”

Smidt says she loves the lathe but is also very fond of a small tool called a French curve scraper, which she used to sand the curves of the desk that was her ambitious first project in the shop. The piece, which Smidt calls her “noodle desk,” consists of a butcher block top that S-curves to the floor

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By: Kathryn M. O’Neill
Title: MIT Hobby Shop rebuilt
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Published Date: Wed, 28 Feb 2024 12:00:00 +0000

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The Download: introducing the Hidden Worlds issue

This is today’s edition of The Download our weekday newsletter that provides a daily dose of what’s going on in the world of technology.

Introducing: the Hidden Worlds issue 

A hidden world is fundamentally different from the undiscovered. We know the hidden world is there. We just can’t see it or reach it.

Hidden worlds exist in the great depths of the ocean and high above us in the planets of the night sky. But they are also all around us in the form of waves and matter and microbes.

Technology has long played the spoiler to these worlds in hiding. We have used ships, airplanes, and rockets to shrink distances. Telescopes, cameras, satellites, drones, and radar help us peer into and map the places we cannot go ourselves. AI increasingly plays a role, too.

If this all fascinates you as much as us, you’ll love the latest issue of MIT Technology Review. It’s all about using technology to explore and expose those hidden worlds, whether they are in the ocean depths, in the far reaches of our galaxy, or swirling all around us, unseen.

Check out these stories from the magazine:

+ Why Jupiter’s icy moon, Europa, is being investigated as a potential host for life.

+ Meet the intrepid divers experimenting with breathing hydrogen as part of an effort to reach depths no diver has ever been before.

+ Inside the hunt for new physics at the Large Hadron Collider, which hasn’t seen any new particles since the discovery of the Higgs boson in 2012.

+ As AI develops at breakneck speed, this comic explains what we can all learn from the Luddites.

+ Here’s a job title you perhaps haven’t heard before, but will hear more in future: climate equity specialist.

This is just a small selection of what’s on offer. I urge you to dive in and enjoy the whole thing, when you find the time. Enjoy!

The first-ever mission to pull a dead rocket out of space has just begun

More than 9,000 metric tons of human-made metal and machinery are orbiting Earth, including satellites, shrapnel, and the International Space Station. But a significant bulk of that mass comes from one source: the nearly a thousand dead rockets that have been discarded in space since the space age began.

Now, for the first time, a mission has begun to remove one of those dead rockets. Funded by the Japanese space agency JAXA, it was launched on Sunday, February 18, and is currently on its way to rendezvous with such a rocket in the coming weeks.

It’ll inspect it and then work out how a follow-up mission might be able to pull the dead rocket back into the atmosphere. If it succeeds, it could demonstrate how we could remove large, dangerous, and uncontrolled pieces of space junk from orbit—objects that could cause a monumental disaster if they collided with satellites or spacecraft. Read the full story.

—Jonathan O’Callaghan

Why hydrogen is losing the race to power cleaner cars

Imagine a car that doesn’t emit any planet-warming gases—or any pollution at all, for that matter. Unlike the EVs on the roads today, it doesn’t take an hour or more to charge—just fuel up and go.

It sounds too good to be true, but it’s the reality of vehicles powered by hydrogen fuel cells. And almost nobody wants one.

Don’t get me wrong: hydrogen vehicles are sold around the world. But they appear to be lurching toward something of a dead end, with fuel prices going up, vehicle sales stagnating, and fueling stations shutting down. Read our story to find out why that is, and what we’d need to get these cars on the road.

—Casey Crownhart

The story above is for subscribers-only. But subscriptions start from just $8 a month to get access to all of MIT Technology Review’s award-winning journalismwhy not try it out

Why Chinese apps chose to film super-short soap operas in Southeast Asia

A handful of Chinese companies are betting that short videos can disrupt the movie and TV industry. These “soap operas for the TikTok age” have found a huge audience in China, creating a market worth $5 billion. Now, they’re betting that these shows, once adapted, can appeal to an American audience.

But rather than just jumping straight into the US, many of these firms are using Southeast Asia as both a testing ground, and a production hub. And they’re treading a well-worn path for using that region as the first frontier for expansion outside China. Read the full story.

—Zeyi Yang

This story is from China Report, our weekly newsletter about China’s tech scene and how it interacts with the world. Sign up to receive it in your inbox every Tuesday.

The must-reads

I’ve combed the internet to find you today’s most fun/important/scary/fascinating stories about technology

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By: Charlotte Jee
Title: The Download: introducing the Hidden Worlds issue
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Published Date: Wed, 28 Feb 2024 13:02:00 +0000

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