World’s first heart transplant between HIV-positive patient and donor performed

Team of surgeon doctors are performing heart surgery operation for patient

New York City doctors have performed the world’s first heart transplant between a patient and donor both living with HIV.

The patient, a woman in her 60s, suffered from advanced heart failure and received a heart donation as well as a kidney in early spring at the Montefiore Health System in the Bronx, New York.

The health centre announced that the patient stayed in the hospital for five weeks following the four-hour surgery and is now only seeing her transplant physicians for monitoring.

Montefiore, one of only 25 clinics in the country that can offer the complex and costly treatment, did not disclose any details about the donor other than their HIV status.

The groundbreaking procedure will offer a lifesaving path for people living with HIV while shortening heart donor waiting lists for all, Montefiore’s top doctor, Ulrich Jorde, told PinkNews.

“It’s a huge milestone that HIV can now be so well controlled that even heart transplantation is possible. People with HIV should also know that they can save lives with organ donation, something unthinkable not too long ago,” the Division of Cardiology vice chief said.

When the operation proved successful, Jorde said he and the team felt “exhilarated”.

“We were extremely proud to help this patient and at the same time expand what’s possible when it comes to saving lives,” he said.

“For the patient and family, it meant first and foremost new life, but also to have become part of the bigger journey of medical and scientific advancement.”

The procedure opens more options for countless patients living with HIV who will now be able to receive a heart from both those living with the virus as well as those who do not.

In 1988, the government criminalised medical facilities using the organs of HIV-positive people as part of an amendment to the National Organ Transplant Act. It was fuelled by stigma in the throes of the AIDS epidemic, with lawmakers feeling that HIV was a “death sentence” so organs would go to waste.

For decades, the act meant that hundreds of viable organs had to be rejected because of the person’s HIV status, despite the growing decline in organ donations.

But the HIV Organ Policy Equity Act, otherwise known as HOPE, opened the doors for hundreds of thousands of people with failing organs in 2013 by reversing the federal ban.

The act, signed by then-president Barack Obama, reflected a growing understanding of the virus as well as leaps in medication that allow HIV-positive people to live long, happy lives.

John Hopkins Medicine said it shortened some waiting lists for HIV-positive patients with kidney and liver failure from years to just months something that Montefiore said expects to happen with hearts. The operation was the first time heart transplantation has taken place between people living with HIV since the HOPE act was signed.

There are currently more than 106,000 people on the national transplant waiting list, according to the  Health Resources and Services Administration.

The dragged-out delay leads to 17 people dying each day, the agency added. Yet despite the thousands in need of a new heart, medical professionals only performed 3,800 heart transplants in 2021, Montefiore said.

The first kidney and liver transplants between HIV-positive patients and HIV-positive donors in the US took place in 2016. John Hopkins Medicine performed the operation in an act that, simply put, was “huge”, said surgery professor Dorry Segev at the time.

“A disease that was a death sentence in the 1980s has become one so well-controlled that those living with HIV can now save lives with kidney donation,” he said. “That’s incredible.”