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Exclusive: Maverick India pig-heart doctor has a controversial reputation

The Assamese surgeon is known for weird experiments and extravagant claims.



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Rituraj Borkakoty

Published: Sun 30 Jan 2022, 8:38 AM

Last updated: Sun 30 Jan 2022, 10:20 PM

It’s been three weeks since an American man diagnosed with terminal heart disease got a second shot at life, thanks to xenotransplantation (the surgical procedure to transfer an animal’s organ into a human body).

David Bennett, 57, is showing signs of recovery at the University of Maryland Medical Center after he got a heart transplant from a genetically modified pig.

The long-term consistency of Bennett’s heartbeat will now determine whether mankind can finally fall back on animals to save people from dying in the face of an acute shortage of organ donors.

But as the picture of a smiling Bartley Griffith, the American doctor who led the surgery team, with Bennett beamed across the world, news websites in India began digging into the archives to introduce an Indian doctor who had performed the same surgery 25 years ago.

It was in 1997 that Dhaniram Baruah had performed the experimental pig-heart surgery on a 33-year-old terminally ill patient in India’s secluded northeast region.

A quarter of a century after transplanting a normal pig heart into a human body with Dr Jonathan Ho Kei-shing, a cardiac surgeon from Hong Kong, at his own heart institute on the outskirts of Guwahati, Assam, Doctor Baruah was finally making global headlines, with even the BBC producing a news clip.

So why did Baruah’s pig-heart surgery fail to earn global recognition 25 years ago?

No protocols followed

The team of doctors in Maryland clocked years of research work on experimental surgery before receiving the emergency authorisation from the FDA to perform the surgery on Bennett.

But Dr Baruah had followed no such protocols before he transplanted a pig’s heart into a human body.

After the patient, Purna Saikia, died following post-surgery complications, it caused a massive uproar in Assam and Baruah’s heart institute was burnt down by a violent mob.

Dr Baruah and Dr Ho Kei-shing even ended up in prison for 40 days before a lower court granted them bail.

The fallout even reportedly led to Ho Kei-shing’s cancellation of medical licence in Hong Kong.

But now Dr Griffith’s success in Maryland has raised question marks over the handling of the situation by the then Assam state government which deemed Baruah’s experimental surgery unethical.

Saigeeta Achrekar, a biochemist from Mumbai who has been working at the Dr Dhaniram Baruah Heart Institute & Research Centre in Sonapur, Assam, for more than 30 years, feels India had missed out on a great opportunity by not backing Baruah’s project.

“If they had allowed Dr Baruah to go ahead with his work, xenotransplantation would have been much easier by now in India,” Achrekar told Khaleej Times over the phone from Assam.

“Who wants the organs? Those who are needy. People die waiting for a donor. So if the authorities had allowed Dr Baruah to continue his research, it would have been much easier for the needy patients.”

But Baruah doesn’t find support from the vast majority of medical professionals in Assam.

Dr Navanil Barua, a renowned Guwahati-based neurosurgeon, was dispassionate in his response to a Khaleej Times query.

“First and foremost, xenotransplantation is not Dr Dhaniram Baruah’s concept, it exists in science. Secondly, to do such a major surgery, you need to have a lot of facilities and extensive pre-surgery work. He did it without even the basics. Even if he had succeeded, the patient would have died of tissue rejection,” the senior doctor said.

“Also none of his work has been published in any peer-reviewed journal. One cannot equate him with the US experiment — much as we would love to.”

Doubts over seven-day claim

Nripendra Nath Bhattacharjee was the jailer in the Guwahati jail where Baruah and Dr Ho Kei-shing were detained for 40 days.

“Both of them used to talk to me in the jail, especially Dr Baruah. I remember one Chinese-American man used to visit them in jail. I don’t know what they talked about. He was probably a doctor as well,” Bhattacharjee recalled while talking to Khaleej Times.

“From my conversations with Baruah, he seemed very confident in the surgery that he had done with Dr Ho Kei-shing and both of them claimed that the patient survived seven days after the surgery.”

But Manoj Goswami, the editor in chief of two of Assam’s biggest media houses, Amar Asom and NK TV, raised questions over the validity of those claims (which were widely reported in media) made by Doctor Baruah’s team.

“You cannot justify what he (Dr Dhaniram Baruah) did. You cannot term it (the pig-heart transplant) as an achievement,” Goswami told Khaleej Times.

“In the US, they had done years of research. It took them more than 10 years to finally do the pig-heart surgery. It was a genetically modified pig heart. And also, they announced it to the world only after the patient survived the first 15 days.

“In Dhaniram Baruah’s case, he claimed the patient died after seven days. But according to the commission set up (by the Assam government) to investigate the Dhaniram issue, the patient did not even survive the first day.”

Unconventional methods

So what inspired Dr Dhaniram Baruah to carry out such a massive surgery all those years ago in Assam?

The man who has that answer is Sunil Dawka, a prominent cardiac surgeon from Assam who got to know Baruah personally after the latter worked for a short while at a Guwahati hospital founded by his father, Doctor Bhabit Dawka.

According to Dawka, the maverick doctor probably got his ‘experimental’ ideas while doing his FRCS (Fellowship of the Royal Colleges of Surgeons) in the 1970s.

“He did his FRCS in the UK. So he probably got a chance to work in experimental surgery in the UK,” Doctor Dawka told Khaleej Times.

The hugely experienced cardiac surgeon then threw light on Doctor Baruah’s unconventional methods.

“Those days, the pig-heart transplant was being planned in the UK. And they (doctors in the UK) were working on genetically modified pigs because they knew that pigs have diseases, animal diseases, viral diseases which can come into humans. So they were working on that modulation, on how to fight the viruses, how to remove them before doing any organ transplant into humans,” he said.

“So knowing that he (Dr Baruah) said he developed his own solution, which he injected and killed the viruses to make the organ safe. But that has not been documented or accepted by any medical groups or societies. This was his own claim!”

Science fiction

In the 1990s, this story relegated the regular incidents of terror attacks from the front pages of Assam newspapers in the conflict-torn state.

Doctor Baruah dominated the news cycle for more than a month, sending shockwaves across a state that was more accustomed to gunshots than to a surgeon’s scalpel.

But he sank into oblivion after the storm had died down.

“After he was released (from jail), he moved on to other fields,” Dawka said, before adding how the eccentric doctor still continued his experimental work.

“He even said he had bypassed bypass surgery! He was working on herbal drugs to open blocks in the coronary artery. With genetic engineering, he also claimed he can cure HIV and cancer.”

Doctor Baruah even claimed to have found a method to make children disease-free for the rest of their lives.

“These were his concepts. It sounds like science fiction,” Dawka exclaimed.

Controversy over HIV treatment

While Dr Dhaniram Baruah’s pig-heart surgery has never found a place in the medical journals, his close associate Dalimi Baruah continues to believe in the man.

“Sir is not excited about the pig-heart transplant in the US because he believes heart transplants are not required anymore,” Baruah, a research worker at the doctor’s heart institute, told Khaleej Times.

Dalimi Baruah also vouched for the ‘injections’ created by Dr Baruah for cancer and HIV/Aids patients.

“In the last 16-17 years, Sir has cured so many heart patients with his injections as well people suffering from cancer and HIV. It’s only available in our heart institute,” she claimed.

But when we asked her if Baruah sought reviews of his new methods from his fellow professionals, Dalimi Baruah said it’s more important to help people than to seek approvals from other scientists or government-appointed medical committees.

“Sir doesn’t depend on anybody anymore because nobody had ever helped him in his research work in the past,” she said.

But Dalimi Baruah’s claim that Dr Baruah’s injections have cured all HIV patients were rejected by Jahnabi Goswami, a well-known HIV/Aids activist from Assam and the president of the Indian Network for People living with HIV/Aids.

“I know two HIV positive people that were treated by him. Both of them died,” Goswami, the first woman from the northeast region to declare her HIV positive status, told Khaleej Times.

“We have the reports of those cases. They took the injections and tested negative later at Dhaniram Baruah’s institute. What happened after testing negative at his institute was that they stopped the antiretroviral treatment (HIV medication) that they had been undergoing for years. They soon had severe HIV complications and died.”

A team of experts were sent to Doctor Baruah’s institute after Goswami’s organisation appealed to the government.

“But he did not want to cooperate with them, even refused to meet them. In fact, his whole compound is guarded by dogs that chase people away,” said Goswami.

“People from ICMR (Indian Council of Medical Research) and WHO (World Health Organisation) also tried to reach him, but he refused to talk to anybody. He has been simply refusing to follow the official protocols.”

Six years ago, Dr Dhaniram Baruah lost his speech after suffering a stroke. His close associates, including Dalimi Baruah, now communicate with him in sign languages.

But the actions of this freakish septuagenarian will continue to evoke noise and bone-chilling curiosity.

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And, as Doctor Navnil Baruah said, no one in their right mind could ‘equate him with the US experiment’.

While Dhaniram Baruah uses his dogs now to chase people away, Dr Bartley Griffith and his team put their years of painstaking research work under the scanner before embarking on that epoch-making surgical procedure at the University of Maryland Medical Centre.

rituraj@khaleejtimes.com


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