2023 Student Journalism Award, Portfolio: Student winner

Pig Human Transplants and the March to Immortality

About the Project

Over 100,000 Americans are stuck on the transplant list, and 17 people die every day waiting. However, there may soon be a solution: in January 2022, a University of Maryland team transplanted a heart from a genetically modified pig into a patient with end-stage heart failure. One of the biggest stories of the year, the historic operation spawned thousands of articles on “xenotransplantation” and how it would transform human longevity.

As a 20-year-old college student and freelance writer, Simar Bajaj spent six months investigating this story and writing about the science, history, and ethics of pig heart transplantation, highlighting the promise of saving these lives but also complicating the irrevocably progressive narrative. In the words of Bartley Griffith, the surgeon who performed the operation, the Guardian feature at the center of this portfolio is “the best overall article I have read.”

Each article in this portfolio builds off the others. The Guardian feature, for example, offers a broad overview, with five key parts interspersed between scenes of a Stanford heart transplant: 1) the history of the operation, 2) the cultural imaginary of pigs, 3) how these pigs were raised and had their genes altered, 4) why the patient died, and 5) the philosophy of the human–animal divide.

The Washington Post article, in turn, dives into the operation’s tortuous backstory and suggests that dreams of xenotransplantation are really about dreams of immortality. On the other hand, the Slate article focuses on animal husbandry, highlighting how even in such a carefully controlled environment, a virus could slip through the cracks, be transplanted into the patient, and kill him.

For these stories, Bajaj interviewed dozens of sources across the United States, including researchers, surgeons, ethicists, journal editors, historians, anthropologists, and animal rights activists. These pieces seek to address gaps in the previous coverage, namely the tortuous history of animal-to-human transfer, the context of the Covid-19 pandemic, and the process of the operation—pig rearing, genetic manipulation, and the surgery itself.

Scientists and those most knowledgeable about the process largely refused to speak about pig husbandry, concerned about animal rights groups’ reactions. So, Bajaj pored over hundreds of journal articles and found technicians and researchers around the world to interview, methodically piecing together the narrative. His pieces were the first to fully describe how pigs were raised and killed for their hearts.

These pieces ultimately helped inform the work of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration Cellular, Tissue, and Gene Therapies Advisory Committee, which is considering whether to allow clinical trials for pig organ transplants. The Guardian feature also won the 2022 Science Story of the Year by the Foreign Press Association, making Bajaj the youngest awardee in the organization’s 135-year history.

Humanity’s understanding of the natural world is being forever remade as dramatic medical advances enter the lexicon; this piece considers how potential does not automatically equate to progress.

Judges Comments

The piece does a beautiful job of bridging the heart and the mind, including the science but also the ethics behind new transplant technology. The student journalist who wrote this also stands as an inspiring example of how youth can engage in the most important issues of the day.