The first successful recipient of a human heart transplant lived 18 days. The first artificial heart recipient lived just over 100.
Their brief post-transplant lives paved the way toward vastly greater successes. Former Vice President Dick Cheney relied on an artificial heart for nearly two years before receiving a human heart transplant. It still beats in his chest more than a decade later.
Organ transplantation recently reached its next phase with David Bennett. He survived for two months after becoming the first recipient of a pig’s heart genetically modified to function in a human body in February. Known as a xenotransplant, the procedure could pave the way for greatly expanding the use of transplanted vital organs to extend human lives.
Clinical trials would have to be held in the U.S. before xenotransplants become widespread; Bennett’s surgery was authorized under a special Food and Drug Administration program that addresses patients with life-threatening medical conditions.
German researchers plan to perform eight pig-to-human heart transplants as part of a clinical trial beginning in 2024. According to an email sent to Leaps.org by three scholars working on the German project, these procedures will focus on one of the reasons David Bennett did not survive longer: A porcine infection from his new heart.
The transplant team will conduct more sensitive testing of the donor organs, “which in all likelihood will be able to detect even low levels of virus in the xenograft,” note the scientists, Katharina Ebner, Jochen Ostheimer and Jochen Sautermeister. They are confident that the risk of infection with a porcine virus in the future will be significantly lower.
Moreover, hearts are not the only genetically modified organs that are being xenotransplanted. A team of surgeons at the University of Alabama at Birmingham successfully transplanted genetically modified pig kidneys into a brain-dead human recipient in September. The kidneys functioned normally for more than three days before the experiment ended. The UAB team is now moving forward with clinical trials focusing on transplanting pig kidneys into human patients.
Some experts believe the momentum for xenotransplantation is building, particularly given the recent successes. “I think there is a strong likelihood this will go mainstream,” says Brendan Parent of NYU Langone Health.
Douglas Anderson, a surgeon who is part of that kidney xenotransplant team, observes that, “organ shortages have been the major issue facing transplantation since its inception” and that xenotransplantation is a potential solution to that quandary. “It can’t be understated the number of people waiting for a kidney on dialysis, which has a significant mortality rate,” he says. According to the advocacy group Donate Life America, more than 100,000 people in the U.S. alone are waiting for a donated organ, and 85 percent of them need a kidney.
Other experts believe the momentum for xenotransplantation is building, particularly given the recent successes. “I think there is a strong likelihood this will go mainstream,” says Brendan Parent, director of transplant ethics and policy at NYU Langone Health, a New York City-based hospital system. Like the UAB team, surgeons at NYU Langone have had success coaxing modified pig kidneys to work in deceased humans.
“There is a genuinely good chance that within a generation, (xenotransplantation) might become very common in reasonably wealthy countries,” says Michael Reiss, professor of science education at University College in London. In addition to his academic position, Reiss sits on the Nuffield Council on Bioethics, a nonprofit that is one of Britain’s most prominent watchdogs regarding medical and scientific issues. Reiss is also an Anglican priest and has studied xenotransplantation from both a scientific and religious point of view.
Moreover, genetic modifications could one day lead to organs being specifically optimized for their recipients. That could ensure issues like donor rejection and the calculated risk of artificially suppressing recipient immune systems become concerns of the past.
Major bioethical, religious concerns
Despite the promise of xenotransplantation, numerous bioethical issues swirl around the procedure. They could be magnified if xenotransplantation evolves from one-off experiments to a routine medical procedure.
One of the biggest is the millennia-long prohibitions Islam and Judaism have had regarding the consumption of pork. Will followers of these religions assume such rules extend to those taboo materials being inserted into a human body?
“Initially, one’s instinctual reaction is that, oh, crumbs! – how are Jews and Muslims going to react to that?” Reiss says. But in a world where science and secularism are accepted on an everyday basis, he notes it is not a significant issue. Reiss points out that valves from pig hearts have been used in human patients for decades without any issues. He adds that both Islam and Judaism waive religious dietary restrictions if a human life is at risk.
“While nobody's saying an individual patient is to be forced to have these, the very high proportion of people who identify as Jews or Muslims when given this option are content with it,” he says.
Concurring with Reiss is Michael Gusamano, professor of health policy at Lehigh University and director of its Center for Ethics. He is currently performing research on the ethics of xenotransplantation for the National Institutes of Health.
“Leaders from all major religions have commented on this and have indicated that this is not inconsistent with religious doctrine,” Gusamano says in written remarks to Leaps.org. “Having said that, it is plausible to believe that some people will assume that this is inconsistent with the teaching of their religion and may object to…receiving a xenotransplant as part of routine medical care.”
A history of clashes
Despite those assurances, science has long clashed with theology. Although Galileo proved the planets revolved around the sun, the Catholic Church found him guilty of heresy and rewarded his discovery with house arrest for the last decade of his life. A revolt occurred in mid-19th century India after native-born soldiers believed the ammunition supplied by their British occupiers had been lubricated with pork and beef tallow. Given they had to use their mouths to tear open ammunition pouches, this violated both the tenets of Islam and Hinduism. And one of the conspiracy theories hatched as a result of COVID-19 was that the vaccines developed to fight the disease were the “mark of the beast” – a sign of impending Armageddon under evangelical Christian theology.
The German xenotransplant research team has encountered such potential concerns when the procedure is regarded through a religious lens. “The pastors in our research suspected that many recipients might feel disgust and revulsion,” they write. “Even beyond these special religious reservations, cultural scripts about pigs as inferior living beings are also generally widespread and effective in the western world, so that here too possible disgust reactions cannot be ruled out.”
The German researchers add that “Jewish and Muslim hospital pastoral workers believe possible considerable problems in this respect, which must be dealt with psychosocially, religiously, and pastorally prior to a possible transplantation in order to strengthen the acceptance of the received organ by the patients and their relatives.”
Parent, the director at NYU Langone, shares a concern that xenotransplantation could move “too fast,” although much of his worry is focused on zoonotic disease transmission – pig viruses jumping into humans as a result of such procedures.
Another ethical issue
Moreover, the way pigs and other animals are raised for transplants could pose future ethical dilemmas.
Reiss notes that pigs raised for medical procedures have to be grown and kept in what are known as a designated pathogen-free facility, or DPF. Such facilities are kept painstakingly antiseptic so as to minimize the risk of zoonotic transmissions. But given pigs are fond of outdoor activities such as wallowing in mud and sleeping on hay, they lead “stunningly boring lives” that they probably do not enjoy, Reiss observes.
Ethical concerns with using pigs may push transplantation medicine into its next logical phase: Growing functional organs for transplant in a laboratory setting.
“There’s no doubt that these research pigs have gotten much better veterinary care, et cetera, (compared to farmed pigs). But it’s not a great life,” Reiss says. “And although it hasn’t so far dominated the discussion, I think as the years go by, rather as we’ve seen with the use of apes and now monkeys in medical research, more and more theologians will get uncomfortable about us just assuming we can do this with…pigs.”
The German research team raises the same concerns, but has taken a fairly sanguine view on the topic. “The impairments of the species-typical behavior will certainly provoke criticism and perhaps also public protest. But the number of animals affected is very small in relation to slaughter cattle,” the German researchers note. “Moreover, the conditions there and also in several animal experiments are far worse.”
Observers say that may push transplantation medicine into its next logical phase: Growing functional organs for transplant in a laboratory setting. Anderson, the UAB transplant surgeon, believes such an accomplishment remains decades away.
But other experts believe there is a moral imperative that xenotransplantation remain a temporary solution. “I think we have a duty to go in that direction,” Parent says. “We have to go that way, with the xenotransplantation process (as) a steppingstone and research path that will be useful for bioengineered organs.”
Until age 35, Cassandra Adams assumed her mother and father were her biological parents. Then she took saliva tests through two genealogy databases—23andMe and AncestryDNA—and discovered a discrepancy in her heritage. In bringing up the matter with her parents, she learned that fertility issues had led the couple to use a sperm donor.
“Most people my age were not told,” said Adams, now 40 and a stay-at-home mom in Jersey City, New Jersey, who is involved with donor-conception advocacy. “Even now, there’s still a lot of secrecy in the industry. There are still many parents who aren’t truthful or planning not to be truthful with their children.”
While some of those offspring may never know a significant part of their medical history, Adams is grateful that she does. Surprisingly, the DNA test revealed Jewish ancestry.
“There are a lot more genetic conditions that run in Jewish families, so it was really important that I get my medical history, because it’s very different from my dad who raised me,” said Adams, who has met her biological father and two of three known half-siblings. As a result of this experience, she converted to Judaism. “It has been a big journey,” she said.
In an era of advancing assisted reproduction technologies, genetics and medical history have become front and center of the debate as to whether or not egg and sperm donations should be anonymous – and whether secrecy is even possible in many cases.
Obstacles to staying anonymous
People looking to become parents can choose what’s called an “identity-release donor,” meaning their child can receive information about the donor when he or she turns 18. There’s no way to ensure that the donor will consent to a relationship at that time. Instead, if a relationship between the donor and child is a priority, parents may decide to use a known donor.
The majority of donors want to remain anonymous, said reproductive endocrinologist Robert Kiltz, founder and director of CNY Fertility in Syracuse, New York. “In general, egg and sperm donation is mostly anonymous, meaning the recipient doesn’t know the donor and the donor doesn’t know the recipient.”
Even if the donor isn’t disclosed, though, the mystery may become unraveled when a donor-conceived person undergoes direct-to-consumer genetic testing through ancestry databases, which are growing in number and popularity. These services offer DNA testing and links to relatives with identifiable information.
In the future, another obstacle to anonymity could be laws that prohibit anonymous sperm and egg donations, if they catch on. In June, Colorado became the first state in the nation to ban anonymous sperm and egg donations. The law, which takes effect in 2025, will give donor-conceived adults the legal authority to obtain their donor’s identity and medical history. It also requires banks that provide sperm and egg collection to keep current medical records and contact information for all donors. Meanwhile, it prohibits donations from those who won’t consent to identity disclosures.
“The tradition of anonymous sperm or egg donation has created a vast array of problems, most significantly that the people thus created want to know who their mommy and daddy are,” said Kenneth W. Goodman, professor and director of the Institute for Bioethics and Health Policy at the University of Miami Miller School of Medicine.
“There are counter arguments on both sides. But the current situation has led to great uncertainty and, in many cases, grief,” Goodman said.
Donors should bear some moral responsibility for their role in reproduction by allowing their identity to be disclosed to donor-conceived individuals when they turn 18, Goodman added, noting that “there are counter arguments on both sides. But the current situation has led to great uncertainty and, in many cases, grief.”
Adams, the Jersey City woman who learned she was Jewish, has channeled these feelings into several works of art and performances on stage at venues such as the Jersey City Theater Center. During these performances, she describes the trauma of “not knowing where we come from [or] who we look like.”
In the last five years, Kathleen “Casey” DiPaola, a lawyer in Albany, New York, who focuses her practice on adoption, assisted reproduction and surrogacy, has observed a big shift toward would-be parents looking to use known sperm donors. On the other hand, with egg donation, “I’m not seeing a whole lot of change,” she said. Compared to sperm donation, more medical screening is involved with egg donation, so donors are primarily found through fertility clinics and egg donor agencies that prefer anonymity. This leads to fewer options for prospective parents seeking an egg donor with disclosed identity, DiPaola said.
Some donors want to keep in touch
Rachel Lemmons, 32, who lives in Denver, grew interested in becoming an egg donor when, as a graduate student in environmental sciences, she saw an online advertisement. “It seemed like a good way to help pay off my student loan debt,” said Lemmons, who is married and has a daughter who will turn 2-years-old in December. She didn’t end up donating until many years later, after she’d paid off the debt. “The primary motivation at that point wasn’t financial,” she said. “Instead, it felt like a really wonderful way to help someone else have a family in a few weeks’ time.”
Lemmons originally donated anonymously because she didn’t know open donations existed. She was content with that until she became aware of donor-conceived individuals’ struggles. “It concerned me that I could potentially be contributing to this,” she said, adding that the egg donor and surrogacy agency and fertility clinic wouldn’t allow her to disclose her identity retroactively.
Since then, she has donated as an open donor, and kept in touch with the recipients through email and video calls. Knowing that they were finally able to have children is “incredibly rewarding,” Lemmons said.
When to tell the kids
Stanton Honig, professor of urology and division chief of sexual and reproductive medicine at Yale School of Medicine, said for years his team has recommended that couples using donor sperm inform children about the role of the donor and their identity. “Honesty is always the best policy, and it is likely that when they become of age, they might or will be able to find out about their biological sperm donor,” he said. “Hiding it creates more of a complicated situation for children in the long run.”
Amy Jones, a 45-year-old resident of Syracuse, N.Y., has three children, including twins, who know they were conceived with anonymous donor eggs from the same individual, so they share the same genetics. Jones, who is a registered nurse and asked for her real name not to be published, told them around age seven.
“The thought of using a known donor brought more concerns—what if she wanted my babies after they were born, or how would I feel if she treated them as her own every time I saw her?” said Jones.
“I did a lot of reading, and all psychologists said that it is best to start the conversation early,” she recalled. “They understood very little of what I was telling them, but through the years, I have brought it up in discussion and encouraged them to ask questions. To this day, they don't seem to be all that interested, but I expect that later on in life they may have more questions.”
Jones and her husband opted to use a donor because premature ovarian failure at age 27 had rendered her infertile. “The decision to use an egg donor was hard enough,” she said. “The thought of using a known donor brought more concerns—what if she wanted my babies after they were born, or how would I feel if she treated them as her own every time I saw her?”
Susan C. Klock, a clinical psychologist in the section of fertility and reproductive medicine at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine, said, “Anonymity is virtually impossible in the age of direct-to-consumer genetic testing.” In addition, “selecting an identity-release donor is typically not the first thing parents are looking at when they select a donor. First and foremost, they are looking for a donor with a healthy medical background. Then they may consider donor characteristics that resemble the parents.”
The donor’s medical history can be critical
Donor agencies rely on the self-reported medical history of egg and sperm donors, which can lead to gaps in learning important information. Knowing a donor’s medical history may have led some families to make different or more well-informed choices.
After Steven Gunner, a donor-conceived adult, suffered from schizophrenia and died of a drug overdose at age 27 in 2020, his parents, who live in New York, learned of a potential genetic link to his mental illness. A website, Donor Sibling Registry, revealed that the sperm donor the couple had used, a college student at the time of donation, had been hospitalized during childhood for schizophrenia and died of a drug overdose at age 46. Gunner’s story inspired Steven’s Law, a bill that was introduced in Congress in July. If passed, it would mandate sperm banks to collect information on donors’ medical conditions, and donors would have to disclose medical information the banks weren’t able to find.
With limited exceptions, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration requires donors to be screened and tested for relevant communicable disease agents and diseases such as HIV, hepatitis viruses B and C, the Zika virus and several STDs. With current technology, it is also impossible to screen for thousands of rare genetic diseases. “If a couple is using IVF (in vitro fertilization) to conceive with the donor gamete, some may opt for pre-implantation genetic testing to assess for chromosomal abnormalities,” Klock said.
Even these precautions wouldn't cover every disease, and some would-be parents don't get the genetic screening. In a situation where one donor has a large number of offspring, it is concerning that he or she can spread a rare disease to multiple people, said Nick Isel, 37, of Yorkville, Illinois, who was conceived with donor sperm due to his parents’ fertility issues. They told him the truth when he was a teenager, and he found his biological father with a journalist’s help.
Since 2016, Isel, who owns a roofing company, has been petitioning the FDA to extend the retention of medical records, requiring the fertility establishment to maintain information on sperm and egg donors for 50 years instead of the current 10-year mandate.
“The lack of family health information,” he said, “is an ongoing, slow-motion public health crisis since donor conception began being regulated by the FDA as a practice.”
Ten thousand years ago, the average human spent a maximum of 30 years on Earth. Despite the glory of Ancient Greece and the Roman Empire, most of their inhabitants didn’t surpass the age of 35. Between the 1500s and 1800, life expectancy (at least in Europe) fluctuated between 30 and 40 years.
Public health advancements like control of infectious diseases, better diet and clean sanitation, as well as social improvements have made it possible for human lifespans to double since 1800. Although lifespan differs widely today from country to country according to socioeconomic health, the average has soared to 73.2 years.
But this may turn out to be on the low side if epigenetic rejuvenation fulfills its great promise: to reverse aging, perhaps even completely. Epigenetic rejuvenation, or partial reprogramming, is the process by which a set of therapies are trying to manipulate epigenetics – how various changes can affect our genes – and the Yamanaka factors. These Yamanaka factors are a group of proteins that can convert any cell of the body into pluripotent stem cells, a group of cells that can turn into brand new cells, such as those of the brain or skin. At least in theory, it could be a recipe for self-renewal.
“Partial reprogramming tries to knock a few years off of people’s biological age, while preserving their original cell identity and function,” says Yuri Deigin, cofounder and director of YouthBio Therapeutics, a longevity startup utilizing partial reprogramming to develop gene therapies aimed at the renewal of epigenetic profiles. YouthBio plans to experiment with injecting these gene therapies into target organs. Once the cargo is delivered, a specific small molecule will trigger gene expression and rejuvenate those organs.
“Our ultimate mission is to find the minimal number of tissues we would need to target to achieve significant systemic rejuvenation,” Deigin says. Initially, YouthBio will apply these therapies to treat age-related conditions. Down the road, though, their goal is for everyone to get younger. “We want to use them for prophylaxis, which is rejuvenation that would lower disease risk,” Deigin says.
Epigenetics has swept the realm of biology off its feet over the last decade. We now know that we can switch genes on and off by tweaking the chemical status quo of the DNA’s local environment. "Epigenetics is a fascinating and important phenomenon in biology,’’ says Henry Greely, a bioethicist at Stanford Law School. Greely is quick to stress that this kind of modulation (turning genes on and off and not the entire DNA) happens all the time. “When you eat and your blood sugar goes up, the gene in the beta cells of your pancreas that makes insulin is turned on or up. Almost all medications are going to have effects on epigenetics, but so will things like exercise, food, and sunshine.”
Can intentional control over epigenetic mechanisms lead to novel and useful therapies? “It is a very plausible scenario,” Greely says, though a great deal of basic research into epigenetics is required before it becomes a well-trodden way to stay healthy or treat disease. Whether these therapies could cause older cells to become younger in ways that have observable effects is “far from clear,” he says. “Historically, betting on someone’s new ‘fountain of youth’ has been a losing strategy.”
The road to de-differentiation, the process by which cells return to an earlier state, is not paved with roses; de-differentiate too much and you may cause pathology and even death.
In 2003 researchers finished sequencing the roughly 3 billion letters of DNA that make up the human genome. The human genome sequencing was hailed as a vast step ahead in our understanding of how genetics contribute to diseases like cancer or to developmental disorders. But for Josephine Johnston, director of research and research scholar at the Hastings Center, the hype has not lived up to its initial promise. “Other than some quite effective tests to diagnose certain genetic conditions, there isn't a radical intervention that reverses things yet,” Johnston says. For her, this is a testament to the complexity of biology or at least to our tendency to keep underestimating it. And when it comes to epigenetics specifically, Johnston believes there are some hard questions we need to answer before we can safely administer relevant therapies to the population.
“You'd need to do longitudinal studies. You can't do a study and look at someone and say they’re safe only six months later,” Johnston says. You can’t know long-term side effects this way, and how will companies position their therapies on the market? Are we talking about interventions that target health problems, or life enhancements? “If you describe something as a medical intervention, it is more likely to be socially acceptable, to attract funding from governments and ensure medical insurance, and to become a legitimate part of medicine,” she says.
Johnston’s greatest concerns are of the philosophical and ethical nature. If we’re able to use epigenetic reprogramming to double the human lifespan, how much of the planet’s resources will we take up during this long journey? She believes we have a moral obligation to make room for future generations. “We should also be honest about who's actually going to afford such interventions; they would be extraordinarily expensive and only available to certain people, and those are the people who would get to live longer, healthier lives, and the rest of us wouldn't.”
That said, Johnston agrees there is a place for epigenetic reprogramming. It could help people with diseases that are caused by epigenetic problems such as Fragile X syndrome, Prader-Willi syndrome and various cancers.
Zinaida Good, a postdoctoral fellow at Stanford Cancer Institute, says these problems are still far in the future. Any change will be incremental. “Thinking realistically, there’s not going to be a very large increase in lifespan anytime soon,” she says. “I would not expect something completely drastic to be invented in the next 5 to 10 years. ”
Good won’t get any such treatment for herself until it’s shown to be effective and safe. Nature has programmed our bodies to resist hacking, she says, in ways that could undermine any initial benefits to longevity. A preprint that is not yet peer-reviewed reports cellular reprogramming may lead to premature death due to liver and intestinal problems, and using the Yamanaka factors may have the potential to cause cancer, at least in animal studies.
“Side effects are an open research question that all partial reprogramming companies and labs are trying to address,” says Deigin. The road to de-differentiation, the process by which cells return to an earlier state, is not paved with roses; de-differentiate too much and you may cause pathology and even death. Deigin is exploring other, less risky approaches. “One way is to look for novel factors tailored toward rejuvenation rather than de-differentiation.” Unlike Yamanaka factors, such novel factors would never involve taking a given cell to a state in which it could turn cancerous, according to Deigin.
An example of a novel factor that could lower the risk of cancer is artificially introducing mRNA molecules, or molecules carrying the genetic information necessary to make proteins, by using electricity to penetrate the cell instead of a virus. There is also chemical-based reprogramming, in which chemicals are applied to convert regular cells into pluripotent cells. This approach is currently effective only for mice though.
“The search for novel factors tailored toward rejuvenation without de-differentiation is an ongoing research and development effort by several longevity companies, including ours,” says Deigin.
He isn't disclosing the details of his own company’s underlying approach to lowering the risk, but he’s hopeful that something will eventually end up working in humans. Yet another challenge is that, partly because of the uncertainties, the FDA hasn’t seen fit to approve a single longevity therapy. But with the longevity market projected to soar to $600 billion by 2025, Deigin says naysayers are clinging irrationally to the status quo. “Thankfully, scientific progress is moved forward by those who bet for something while disregarding the skeptics - who, in the end, are usually proven wrong.”