Seven-month-old Lincoln Seay was in bad shape. Lincoln had been waiting since November for a heart transplant and now he was going into cardiac arrest. A donor heart had been located and was on the way, but the little boy was deteriorating rapidly. Even with the best care, Lincoln’s life was hanging in the balance.
Lincoln Saey waiting for a heart transplant
Lincoln was born with a congenital heart disorder, a heart defect that prevents normal blood circulation. His condition is known as heterotaxy syndrome, which means that his heart developed on the right side of his body, keeping his body from getting the necessary blood supply and turning his skin blue in places. The exact cause of heterotaxy syndrome is unknown, and statistics indicate that it’s rare – affecting only 4 out of every 1,000,000 babies.
However, without surgery, babies like Lincoln usually do not survive to their first birthday. And even access to the best custodial care doesn’t ensure a positive outcome. Last year, 25 babies with a variety of illnesses died while waiting for new hearts. As Lincoln’s health deteriorated and his family waited for a donor heart, the doctors said they had no choice. They needed to operate on Lincoln before a heart became available, opening his chest and compressing his heart to keep him alive while they waited for the donor heart to arrive. On day 89 of their wait, Lincoln’s family was notified that a heart had indeed become available, beginning a process that could only have happened with modern medicine, and the help of animal research.
The history of heart transplantation is built on research with animals. Fifty-seven years ago, two Stanford surgeons, performed the world’s first heart transplant in a dog. The pair spent the next 8 years continuing to work with dogs to refine their surgical techniques, leading to the first human heart transplant in 1967 and the first pediatric heart transplant shortly after. The transplant operations were made possible by the inventions of Dr. Michael DeBakey, whose research with dogs and cows led to the device used to keep patients alive during surgery.
In addition to installing Lincoln’s new heart, doctors worked to keep his body from rejecting it as a foreign body. The immune system can determine that a transplanted organ is not ours and attack it as an invader. Organ rejection was an enormous problem until researchers used rodent models and sheep cells to develop the immunosuppressive drug cyclosporin in the 1980s. Thanks to advances made through animal research, heart transplants have become much safer and more routine, with approximately 2,200 performed in the United States every year and 50% of recipients still alive after 10 years.
Transplanting the new heart into a patient, especially one so young, is very difficult. Luckily, for patients like Lincoln, doctors at Seattle Children’s Hospital pride themselves on cutting-edge research with animal models to develop new techniques and refine current ones. Refining the procedure with animals gave Lincoln’s surgical team the experience and knowledge they employed to save his life.
Researchers are also working with animal models to better understand and treat the underlying causes of congenital heart disease. At Dr. Alvin Chin’s lab, located at Penn Medicine, he and his team are studying Lincoln’s condition – hererotaxy syndrome – using zebrafish as a model. The zebrafish is an invaluable research model because, for the first two weeks after it hatches, it is totally transparent. Using modern imaging techniques, scientists like Dr. Chin are able to observe the living cardiovascular system in real-time.
Thanks to the knowledge and skills of his doctors, Lincoln survived and is now healthier than ever. Lincoln and more than 63,000 other children have gotten a new chance at life thanks to heart transplants made possible by animal research. The amazing story of this remarkable baby highlights how animal research can offer a new lease on life to patients with severe heart problems.
Following the transplant, Lincoln Seay’s parents say he more energetic and stays awake much longer