A xenograft bioprosthetic heart valve replaces a damaged valve in your heart. It’s made from tissue sourced from animals such as pigs or cows.

Xenograft bioprosthetic heart valves are a treatment option for people with severe heart valve disease.

The name can be broken into several parts:

  • The prefix “xeno” means foreign — in this case, it means from a foreign animal.
  • A “graft” is a piece of tissue transplanted into your body.
  • A “bioprosthetic” is a replacement for a body part that comes from living or organic tissue.

Altogether, a xenograft bioprosthetic heart valve is a replacement for one of your heart valves sourced from animals.

Surgeons have used xenograft bioprosthetic heart valves since the 1960s to treat people with heart valve disease. These prosthetics generally don’t last as long as heart valves made from synthetic material, but they offer some advantages. For example, you will not require lifelong blood thinning medication.

Read on to learn more about how doctors use xenograft bioprosthetic heart valve replacements to treat valve disease.

About 2.5% of people in the United States have heart valve disease, which leads to over 25,000 deaths per year.

If it’s left untreated, valve disease can lead to complications such as:

Treatment options for heart valve disease include:

  • lifestyle changes
  • medications
  • surgery to repair or replace a valve

Your doctor may recommend surgery if medications can’t manage your symptoms or if your symptoms are getting worse. In about 70% of cases, completely replacing the valve is needed.

Doctors can use synthetic heart valve replacements or bioprosthetics to treat heart valve disease.

Of the more than 300,000 heart valve replacements performed worldwide each year, 40-60% are xenograft bioprosthetics.

Current guidelines recommend using synthetic prosthetics for people younger than 50 and bioprosthetics for people over 70. They recommend either type for people between these ages.

Bioprosthetic heart valve replacements are most frequently made from tissue derived from pig or cow hearts. The heart is recovered from the animal and transported on ice within 6 hours for surgery.

Pig hearts are more similar to humans, so surgeons can use a valve directly from the heart to replace your damaged valve. When surgeons use a cow heart, they need to reconstruct a valve from the pericardium, which is the tissue that covers the heart.

Doctors can transplant synthetic or bioprosthetic heart valves. Here are some of the pros and cons of each type:

Heart valveProsCons
Synthetic heart valves (mechanical valves)• High durability
• Long-lasting
• Requires lifelong blood thinning medications
Autograft (from your body)• Excellent long-term survival
• Decreased need for blood thinners
• Chance of damaging your pulmonary valve, which is used as a graft
• Less durable than synthetic heart valves
Allografts (from a cadaver)• Decreased need for blood thinners
Highly resistant to infections
• Limited number of donors
• Less durable than synthetic heart valves
Xenografts• Near limitless number of potential donors
• Decreased need for blood thinners
• Less durable than synthetic heart valves

Bioprosthetic heart valves, also called living heart valves, can be made from:

  • xenografts: heart tissue derived from a pig or cow
  • autografts: heart tissue taken from your own body
  • allografts: heart tissue taken from a deceased donor

What are synthetic heart valves made from?

Synthetic heart valves are made from non-living materials such as:

  • polypropylene
  • silicone
  • polyvinyl alcohol
  • titanium
  • pyrolytic carbon
  • polyether urethane
  • polycarbonate urethane
  • polyethylene glycol
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A heart valve replacement is an extensive procedure that requires open heart surgery.

According to the Canadian Heart and Stroke Foundation, heart valve surgery can take more than 2 hours.

It will likely take you 4–8 weeks to recover fully. You’ll likely undergo cardiac rehabilitation after your recovery, which can take up to an additional 12 weeks. Cardiac rehabilitation is a program designed to help you regain your heart strength that involves:

  • exercise
  • emotional support
  • lifestyle habit counseling
  • heart health education
  • dietary counseling

Side effects from this type of heart valve generally occur more often in older adults and people with poorer overall health. They include:

The risk of dying during the procedure is about 2%.

Degeneration of the xenograft usually starts 7–8 years after implantation. There’s a sharp increase in the number of implant failures 10–15 years after implantation.

Factors associated with increased degeneration of the xenograft include:

Synthetic prosthetic heart valves come with a high risk of blood clots and require lifelong blood thinning medication to minimize the risk.

One of the advantages of receiving a bioprosthetic heart valve replacement is you usually don’t need to take long-term blood thinning medications.

Xenograft bioprosthetic heart valve replacements are replacement heart valves derived from animal tissue. This tissue usually comes from pigs or cows.

One of the main advantages of these heart valve replacements over synthetic valves is that you won’t have to take blood thinning medication for the rest of your life. However, they don’t tend to last as long as synthetic valves.

Your doctor can help you weigh the pros and cons of xenograft bioprosthetics compared to other treatment options.