Guwahati: Global recognition for a medical experiment to use a pig’s heart as a transplant in a human body, now being claimed by US surgeons could have been in an Assam doctor’s name, and that too 25 years ago, had he submitted his findings for a crucial peer review and sought requisite permissions before his path-breaking operation.

Dr Dhaniram Baruah, a man ‘ahead of his times’, had achieved the near-impossible in 1997 when he had “successfully” transplanted a pig’s heart and other organs into a person.

However, his refusal to place his findings and procedures before scientific peer scrutiny cost him not only with lack of recognition but also an arrest after the patient in whom he fitted the pig’s heart died after seven days. “Dr Baruah perhaps thought ahead of his times, but he had to play by the rules of the game. People’s lives are at stake and one has to go through the correct process (of peer review and seeking of permissions before actual transplant),” Dr A Goswami, a leading cardiac consultant surgeon here, said speaking to PTI.

He underlined that research on critical surgeries involving the heart takes years and are constantly evolving. A team from the University of Maryland School of Medicine, near Washington DC on Monday said on Monday it had successfully transplanted a genetically modified pig heart into a 57-yer-old patient with a terminal illness.

“The US doctors who performed the procedure now have 25 years of more research to work on than Dr Baruah did,” Goswami pointed out.

“Also, medical facilities in 1997 in Assam were primitive compared to the US of today. The process of preparing the heart to be transplanted is a novel process and Dr Baruah perhaps did not have optimal resources at his disposal,” he added. Dr Goswami stressed on the need for proper review and documentation for any such critical procedures to be undertaken on human beings, an aspect in which Dr Baruah’s research and work lacked and deprived him of any official recognition. Baruah, an FRCS had transplanted the pig’s heart into a 32-year-old male patient who had a ventricular septal defect or hole in the heart in January 1997.

The surgery which took 15-hours to perform seemed successful. However, the patient died of multiple infections seven days later, leading to accusation of insufficient research and lack of permission from authorities before taking up the surgery. Dr Baruah and two others involved were arrested for violating the organ transplantation act. Dr Raj Dutta, a consultant with Dispur Hospital here, said research cannot be a stand-alone. It has to be corroborated. ”

Peer review is crucial to ensure that the findings are of optimal benefit, without risk of leading to any harmful side effects. Dr Baruah should have submitted his findings to review, which would have helped in knowing how many breakthroughs he had actually achieved, Dr Dutta added.

A senior Guwahati-based journalist Mrinal Talukdar, who had covered the event and the brouhaha which arose when Dr Baruah had made his sensational claim of the successful transplant, said, Our question as journalists were whether his findings were peer-reviewed. I repeatedly asked him this and he simply evaded a response. ” “Our questions were more on the legal procedural part rather than the medical part, like did he have the permission for carrying out human body part transplantation,” he said.

Talukdar claimed that Dr Baruah did not have the requisite permission, even though the Transplantation of Human Organs Act was passed in the country in 1994. Dr Baruah, lives in Sonapur on the medical campus where he performed the transplant operation, but has not been keeping well for some time.

Also read: Historic 1st: Pig heart transplanted into human patient in US



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