50 years ago, a pessimistic view for heart transplants

Excerpt from the September 14, 1968 issue of Science News

heart transplant surgery

CHANGE OF HEART  50 years ago, the first surgeon to perform a human-to-human heart transplant didn’t think his patients would live five years. Now, more than half of patients make it 10 years with new tickers.



Transplanted hearts will be shortlived

Now that heart recipients can realistically look forward to leaving the hospital and taking up a semblance of normal life, the question arises, what kind of semblance, and for how long? South Africa’s Dr. Christiaan Barnard, performer of the first heart transplant, has a sobering view…. “A transplanted heart will last only five years — if we’re lucky.” — Science News, September 14, 1968


Barnard didn’t need to be so disheartening. Advances in drugs that suppress the immune system and keep blood pressure down have helped to pump up life expectancy after a heart transplant. Now, more than half of patients who receive a donated ticker are alive 10 years later. A 2015 study found 21 percent of recipients still alive 20 years post-transplant. In 2017, nearly 7,000 people across 46 countries got a new heart, according to the Global Observatory on Donation and Transplantation.

Bethany was previously the staff writer at Science News for Students. She has a Ph.D. in physiology and pharmacology from Wake Forest University School of Medicine.

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