Doctors at Duke Health have achieved a major medical breakthrough by conducting the world’s first partial heart transplant on an infant named Owen, who is now thriving one year after the pioneering procedure. This groundbreaking surgery could pave the way for thousands of children born with rare heart defects to receive life-saving treatment.
18-Day-Old Undergoes Rare Procedure, Defies Odds
When Owen Monroe was born in November 2022 with hypoplastic left heart syndrome (HLHS), he faced a grim prognosis. HLHS is a rare birth defect where the left side of the heart does not form correctly, making it unable to pump blood properly. Most infants born with HLHS do not survive longer than a week without intervention.
Doctors told Owen’s parents that he would need three open-heart surgeries within his first few years of life just to stabilize his condition. And even then, only 50-60% of HLHS cases have positive outcomes. But the cardiology team at Duke had another idea.
On November 28th, 2022, when Owen was just 18 days old, Duke surgeons performed the world’s first-ever partial heart transplant on an infant. Instead of replacing Owen’s entire heart, they transplanted parts of a donor heart – the left ventricle and control valves – to repair his own defective heart.
The extremely complex 5-hour procedure was a success. Now at 13 months old, Owen is reaching developmental milestones and charming doctors with his vibrant, positive personality. His transplanted heart tissue continues to grow along with the rest of his body.
| Born with hypoplastic left heart syndrome | Underwent partial heart transplant at 18 days old | Surgery succeeded, now thriving at 13 months old
Owen’s miraculous progress and the groundbreaking surgery that saved him are giving hope to thousands of other families facing this devastating diagnosis.
Surgeons Pioneer New Method to Repair Infant Hearts
The potential of partial heart transplants to revolutionize care for children with complex congenital heart disease is enormous. As Dr. Timothy Hoffman, the pediatric cardiac surgeon who led Owen’s procedure, explains:
“For many patients with failing hearts, replacing the entire organ is associated with many complications. The concept of only replacing the parts of the heart that are failing represents a shift in the paradigm of what is possible.”
Owen was an ideal candidate because his right ventricle was healthy. By transplanting parts from a donor left ventricle to repair the left side of Owen’s heart, his body could rely on the right side to keep blood pumping during surgery and recovery.
This is the first time such a feat has been attempted on someone so young. Infants’ bodies see substantial growth and development, meaning transplanted organs run the risk of not keeping pace. But amazingly, Owen’s new left ventricle and valves are growing along with the rest of his heart.
Follow-up testing shows excellent heart function. Owen’s cardiologists fully expect the repaired left side of his heart to continue developing as he does. This success paves the way for using partial heart transplants to treat other children born with rare defects.
Thousands Now Eligible For Life-Saving Surgery
An estimated 1,000-2,000 children per year are born in the United States with hypoplastic left heart syndrome. Up to 20% of them could be eligible for a surgery like Owen’s, which could dramatically raise survival rates.
Tens of thousands more infants are born with other complex congenital heart disorders that leave them with only one functional pumping chamber. For such children, replacing or repairing only the malfunctioning parts could mean the difference between life or death.
“We estimate that at least 10% of patients born with congenital heart disease may benefit from this type of targeted partial heart transplant,” said Dr. Joseph Turek, Duke’s chief of pediatric cardiac surgery.
Until now, these patients’ only options were a full heart transplant or a series of painfully invasive surgeries attempting to rebuild failing heart parts. But the odds of finding a perfectly matched infant heart donor in time are miniscule. And open-heart operations on tiny babies come with substantial risks. Owen’s case proves partial heart transplants can achieve the same life-saving repairs in a single procedure.
The implications are enormous. “This procedure may accelerate the surgical repair, increase the quality of life, and in some cases, be the only option for survival for these patients,” said Dr. Timothy Hoffman.
What’s Next: Trials To Refine Technique
While Owen’s outcome is extremely promising, the surgical team emphasizes that much more research is needed before partial heart transplants become standard practice. Duke is partnering with others in the pediatric cardiology field to launch clinical trials in 2024. Goals include refining their surgical technique as well as tracking long-term durability of repaired infant hearts.
To make this revolutionary surgery more accessible, researchers must also tackle issues around organ donation and rejection risk. But doctors are hopeful that within 5-10 years, targeted partial heart transplants could be available to save thousands of young lives worldwide.
Owen will continue being closely monitored by Duke cardiologists. But for now, he remains an active, playful baby full of joy and curiosity – a shining example of the progress partial heart transplants could bring for many families. The heart cells transplanted into Owen’s chest continue pulsating with life, bringing new hope for the future of pediatric heart surgery.
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