The Miracle of Baby Owen: 4-month-old's life is saved after becoming world's first partial heart transplant with living tissue

'The fact that not only he's okay but he's thriving really gives a lot of hope for future babies that have to go through this,' said Owen Monroe's mom Tayler

The Miracle of Baby Owen: 4-month-old's life is saved after becoming world's first partial heart transplant with living tissue
Tayler (R) and Nicholas Monroe's (L) son Owen Monroe smiles happily months after his heart surgery (Duke Health/ Website)
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DURHAM, NORTH CAROLINA: A world-first partial heart transplant using living tissue was performed on a 5 lb newborn boy with a fatal heart defect. Owen Monroe, a four-month-old child from North Carolina, was born with truncus arteriosus, a condition where the aorta and pulmonary artery fuse together. Since the surgery at Duke University in North Carolina four months ago, the baby has been "thriving" and has reached all developmental milestones. The procedure, according to his mother Tayler Monroe, was a "miracle" and helped save her son's life. 

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Shortly after birth, doctors separated them and repaired the baby's "leaky" heart valves using living tissue that will develop with him. This prevented the need for additional surgery. Dead tissue is typically used in surgeries to repair fused valves, but it must be replaced in complicated procedures up to three times before adulthood and every 10 years after that.

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The living arteries and valves from a recently donated heart were fused onto a patient's existing heart by a Duke Health team in what is thought to be the world's first partial heart transplant. Duke Health stated, "Owen is showing remarkable growth and improvements since undergoing the surgery on April 22, 2022, and his outlook remains strong." Nick Monroe, Owen’s father, said, "As harrowing of an experience as it was for our family, we knew from the beginning that Owen was in the best hands."

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Given that their son was already likely to experience heart failure soon after birth, Tayler and Nicholas Monroe, his parents, said they had "few options" after learning of their son's diagnosis. They were informed that their son would probably not make it off the six-month waiting list for a full transplant and decided to participate in Duke University's experimental surgery, which would use living tissue to split the fused arteries.

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The standard procedure involves using tissue from a cadaver, and about 90% of infants who receive it survive for more than 40 years. However, the American Heart Association estimates that because they will grow, they will require at least three additional operations to replace the tissue in their lifetime. In adulthood, it might also need to be replaced every ten years. 

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When Owen was born, doctors discovered that in addition to having fused arteries, he also had a heart valve that was "leaky" and would need to be replaced. Good heart valves are crucial because they prevent circulation-interrupting blood flow back in the wrong direction. He was given living tissue and valves belonging to an infant's donor heart during the procedure.

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Owen was released from the hospital and sent home after he had recovered and displayed no side effects from the procedure. According to doctors, the child is now developing normally, and his parents are much happier. "It was basically like if something happened at birth, we would resuscitate him and hope for the best, which is really hard and scary to hear," mother Tayler said before the birth. She added, ''Nick and I had the conversation of is Owen here to be a donor for other babies, which is probably the hardest conversation you could ever have as a parent."

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But Tayler claimed it was "miraculous" after the procedure and her son's recovery. "The fact that not only he's okay but he's thriving really gives a lot of hope for future babies that have to go through this. All of his doctors are thrilled at how he's doing. He's not behind at all developmentally, anything like that."

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The Duke’s chief of pediatric cardiac surgery Dr Joseph Turek who led Owen's surgery stated, "This procedure potentially solves the problem of a growing valve. If we can eliminate the need for multiple open-heart surgeries every time a child outgrows an old valve, we could be extending the life of that child by potentially decades or more."

Dr Michael Carboni, who works at the university and is Owen’s pediatric transplant cardiologist, said, "What’s particularly remarkable about this procedure, is that not only is this innovation something that can extend the lives of children, but it makes use of a donated heart that would otherwise not be transplantable. The valves in this procedure come from a donor heart that had muscle tissue which was too weak to make it viable for full transplant but had strong valves that were well suited for Owen’s needs." He added, "This innovation amplifies the ways in which we can use the incredible gift of organ donation to save more lives."

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Without surgery, truncus arteriosus usually results in a baby's death because the heart has to work too hard to deliver nutrients to every part of the body. Less than one in 10,000 American babies are born with it, making it also rare. In the United States, there are roughly 250 cases each year, according to the cdc.gov report.

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