Alumnus researches pig-to-human heart transplant

Baylor alumnus Dr. Corbin Goerlich is researching a way to save lives through an alternative method of transplantation. Photo courtesy of Dr. Corbin Goerlich

By Megan Hale | Reporter

It is estimated that more than 100,000 people are currently on the waitlist for lifesaving organ transplants. It is also estimated that every nine minutes, someone is added to the list. Baylor alumnus Dr. Corbin Goerlich is researching a way to save lives through an alternative method of transplantation.

Goerlich graduated from Baylor in 2012 after completing his degree as a Baylor Business Fellow with minors in both biology and chemistry. He now works as a general surgery resident at Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore and is in the process of finishing his Ph.D. in immunology.

“​​Undergraduate education is such a transformative process,” Goerlich said via email. “Baylor helped me discover who I am and what my academic interests are, which is medicine and research. It also prepared me to be competitive for medical school. Baylor’s pre-health program has become quite a force to reckon with and am sure it will prepare others for their future just like it has for me.”

Goerlich currently works alongside Dr. Muhammad Mohiuddin and Dr. Bartley Griffith at the University of Maryland School of Medicine. Their research focuses on transplanting genetically-modified pig hearts into humans, also known as pig-to-human cardiac xenotransplantation. This procedure is designed to help patients with end-stage heart failure who require heart transplants but do not presently qualify.

According to the Food and Drug Administration, xenotransplantation is defined as any medical procedure that involves the transplantation, implantation or infusion of live cells, tissues or organs from a nonhuman animal source into a human recipient.

“Most people don’t realize that the first heart transplantation was actually a xenotransplantation in 1964 by Dr. James Hardy, from a chimpanzee,” Goerlich said.

According to a medical journal article released by the U.S. National Library of Medicine, xenotransplantation has been an ongoing area of study for centuries, with its early roots starting in animal-to-human blood transfusions and skin grafts.

“Since modern-era transplantation for end-stage organ failure, organ shortage has always been an issue,” Goerlich said. “That is actually why Dr. Hardy in 1964 decided to use a chimpanzee heart instead of a human heart, as it was virtually impossible to coordinate the procurement process from a donor to a patient requiring heart transplantation. However, there are ethical and biologic concerns for using nonhuman primates for organ transplantation. Pigs strike the balance between a more ethically sound source of organs; we already domesticate pigs for food and biomedical products, and they are able to reproduce relatively quickly with many offspring.”

Although the idea of this procedure may seem unconventional, the response from the medical community has been overwhelmingly positive, Goerlich said.

“​​This procedure will certainly take time to become widespread, if ever mainstream, but is likely to continue to see wider application and acceptance as a reality after a formalized clinical trial,” Goerlich said.

Goerlich is currently in the process of finishing his surgical training and plans to pursue his career as a practicing surgeon-scientist in the field of heart failure, mechanical circulatory support and cardiac xenotransplantation as this field continues to grow, develop and improve.

“I decided to pursue this research because it is the perfect balance between basic science and translational research and is surgically applied,” Goerlich said. “As a surgeon, I am particularly biased toward anything that is surgical, but this area of research feeds the intellectual and curiosity regions of my brain too. I also think that the heart is a particularly interesting organ because it emulates the biologic principle of biologic structure and function working hand-in-hand. From the heart chambers to valves and vessels, they all ring true to this principle.”