The Hush Post| 12:31 pm |three-minute-read
A few days back, researchers from Sweden, Germany and Switzerland reported in the journal Nature that “modifications to a cross-species transplantation approach for the first time has enabled baboons that received genetically modified pig hearts to survive for more than six months.”
Researchers at the Ludwig Maximilian University of Munich, Germany, led by transplantation researcher Bruno Reichart, replaced the hearts of five baboons with those from genetically engineered pigs. With this, human trials for inter-species transplants could finally be here to stay.
But that is not important. What is more important is that in Sonapur, about 20 km from Guwahati, Dr Dhani Ram Baruah tried this on a human being. This happened in 1997. The patient then survived for about a week.
But Dr Baruah was soon jailed for doing so.
Today he stands vindicated. A Fellow of the Royal College of Surgeons and Physicians in the UK, Baruah is today mainly confined to the hospital premises.
Many time zones away from Munich, Baruah is not surprised by the findings. “I was the pioneer,” he said. “Whoever transplants a pig heart into a human now, I was the first to do it successfully with seven days’ survival. Xenotranplant has a bright future if it goes in the right direction.”
Way back in 1997, Baruah had transplanted a pig’s heart into a 32-year-old man, Purno Saikia, who had a ventricular septal defect, or hole in the heart. With Baruah was an equally controversial Hong Kong-based cardiac surgeon, Dr Jonathan Ho Kei-Shing. Ho had his own run-in with the Chinese authorities in 1992, when he fit heart valves made from ox tissue — designed by Baruah — into human patients.
Saikia’s surgery, according to Baruah, lasted 15 hours. He died of multiple infections a week later. The survival period determined by the International Society for Heart and Lung Transplantation for a xenotransplantation — the transplantation or infusion of any organ from one species to another — to be considered safe for human trial is 90 days.
Both Baruah and Ho were arrested and charged under section 304 (culpable homicide not amounting to murder) of the Indian Penal Code (IPC) and section 18 of the Transplantation of Human Organs Act, 1994 (removal of human organ without authority). Besides, the Dr Dhaniram Heart Institute and Research Centre was founded to have “neither applied for nor obtained registration” as required under the transplant laws.
The government alleged that the heart may not have been that of a pig — a claim that was later dismissed by Central Forensic Science Research Laboratory in Kolkata in June 1999. Baruah, now 68 years old, was released on bail after 40 days in jail.
He returned to find his clinic and lab gutted, his animal farm destroyed, and his water and power supply cut off. He spent the next 18 months under virtual house arrest. He then survived on rainwater and little food, and depended on the charity of friends and his wife, also a doctor in Glasgow.
At the time of controversy, Baruah was a heart surgeon of international repute. In the early-1980s, he was asked by then-Prime Minister Indira Gandhi and Assam chief minister Hiteshwar Saikia to set up an openheart surgery clinic in his home state. In 1989, he set up a facility in Mumbai to manufacture the patented Baruah heart valve, which has since been used on patients the world over.