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First-ever heart transplant and thymus impant gives toddler a new chance at life

Surgeons at Duke University Hospital performed the world’s first combination heart transplant and thymus tissue implantation.

RALEIGH, N.C. — Surgeons at Duke University Hospital performed the world’s first combination heart transplant and thymus tissue implantation and now, a year later, their 18-month-old patient is a growing, thriving medical miracle.

Little Easton Sinnamon came into the world last year with a broken heart, having six defects in all, that were too severe for doctors to fix.

“If we didn't go the transplant route, he wouldn't be here today,” Easton’s mother, Kaitlyn Sinnamon, said.

Doctors also determined that Easton had an immune system that wasn’t working.

“We found out that he didn't have T cells," Dr. Joseph W. Turek, MD, PhD, MBA, Chief of Pediatric Cardiac Surgery at Duke University, explained. "T cells are something that are produced by the thymus. They helped to fight infection."

Dr. Turek and his team proposed an investigational procedure that had been pioneered at Duke but never performed in humans before – a combination heart transplant and implantation of cultured thymus tissue. 

Doctors believed the implanted thymus cells would reduce the need for anti-rejection drugs. Kaitlyn said it wasn’t a difficult choice for their family to make, since the thymus implantation posed little risk to their son.

“If you do it and it works, you're changing how transplants are done worldwide,” Kaitlyn emphasized.

When Easton was 6 months old, a donor's heart became available. Surgeons also sent thymus tissue from the same donor to a lab for processing. The heart transplant was first.

Dr. Turek added, “We went back to the operating room two weeks later, and we did the cultured thymic tissue implantation.”

Easton’s doctors and family noticed the difference immediately.

“He was no longer this kind of bluish, grayish color, not getting enough oxygen,” Kaitlyn said.

Easton left Duke Hospital after seven months, growing stronger at home. He is not only celebrating his first birthday, but another one-year milestone.

Kaitlyn mentioned, “We call it his heart birthday, his ‘heart-versary’. Aug. 6 was when he received his transplant.”

The heart transplant and thymus tissue implant were cleared by the FDA under an expanded access application. Kaitlyn said doctors have just started reducing one of his anti-rejection medications, as doctors initially hoped they would be able to do. The anti-rejection medications can be toxic to organs, especially the kidneys.

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