Jennifer Cisneros was 18 years old, commuting to college from her family's home outside Annapolis, Maryland, when she came down with what she thought was the flu. Over the following weeks, however, her fatigue and nausea worsened, and her weight began to plummet. Alarmed, her mother took her to see a pediatrician. "When I came back with the urine cup, it was orange," Cisneros recalls. "He was like, 'Oh, my God. I've got to send you for blood work.'"
"Eventually, we'll be better off than with a human organ."
Further tests showed that her kidneys were failing, and at Johns Hopkins Hospital, a biopsy revealed the cause: Goodpasture syndrome (GPS), a rare autoimmune disease that attacks the kidneys or lungs. Cisneros was put on dialysis to filter out the waste products that her body could no longer process, and given chemotherapy and steroids to suppress her haywire immune system.
The treatment drove her GPS into remission, but her kidneys were beyond saving. At 19, Cisneros received a transplant, with her mother as donor. Soon, she'd recovered enough to return to school; she did some traveling, and even took up skydiving and parasailing. Then, after less than two years, rejection set in, and the kidney had to be removed.
She went back on dialysis until she was 26, when a stranger learned of her plight and volunteered to donate. That kidney lasted four years, but gave out after a viral infection. Since 2015, Cisneros—now 32, and working as an office administrator between thrice-weekly blood-filtering sessions—has been waiting for a replacement.
She's got plenty of company. About 116,000 people in the United States currently need organ transplants, but fewer than 35,000 organs become available every year. On average, 20 people on the waiting list die each day. And despite repeated campaigns to boost donorship, the gap shows no sign of narrowing.
"This is going to revolutionize medicine, in ways we probably can't yet appreciate."
For decades, doctors and scientists have envisioned a radical solution to the shortage: harvesting other species for spare parts. Xenotransplantation, as the practice is known, could provide an unlimited supply of lifesaving organs for patients like Cisneros. Those organs, moreover, could be altered by genetic engineering or other methods to reduce the danger of rejection—and thus to eliminate the need for immunosuppressive drugs, whose potential side effects include infections, diabetes, and cancer. "Eventually, we'll be better off than with a human organ," says David Cooper, MD, PhD, co-director of the xenotransplant program at the University of Alabama School of Medicine. "This is going to revolutionize medicine, in ways we probably can't yet appreciate."
Recently, progress toward that revolution has accelerated sharply. The cascade of advances began in April 2016, when researchers at the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute (NHLBI) reported keeping pig hearts beating in the abdomens of five baboons for a record-breaking mean of 433 days, with one lasting more than two-and-a-half years. Then a team at Emory University announced that a pig kidney sustained a rhesus monkey for 435 days before being rejected, nearly doubling the previous record. At the University of Munich, in Germany, researchers doubled the record for a life-sustaining pig heart transplant in a baboon (replacing the animal's own heart) to 90 days. Investigators at the Salk Institute and the University of California, Davis, declared that they'd grown tissue in pig embryos using human stem cells—a first step toward cultivating personalized replacement organs. The list goes on.
Such breakthroughs, along with a surge of cash from biotech investors, have propelled a wave of bullish media coverage. Yet this isn't the first time that xenotransplantation has been touted as the next big thing. Twenty years ago, the field seemed poised to overcome its final hurdles, only to encounter a setback from which it is just now recovering.
Which raises a question: Is the current excitement justified? Or is the hype again outrunning the science?
A History of Setbacks
The idea behind xenotransplantation dates back at least as far as the 17th century, when French physician Jean-Baptiste Denys tapped the veins of sheep and cows to perform the first documented human blood transfusions. (The practice was banned after two of the four patients died, probably from an immune reaction.) In the 19th century, surgeons began transplanting corneas from pigs and other animals into humans, and using skin xenografts to aid in wound healing; despite claims of miraculous cures, medical historians believe those efforts were mostly futile. In the 1920s and '30s, thousands of men sought renewed vigor through testicular implants from monkeys or goats, but the fad collapsed after studies showed the effects to be imaginary.
Research shut down when scientists discovered a virus in pig DNA that could infect human cells.
After the first successful human organ transplant in 1954—of a kidney, passed between identical twin sisters—the limited supply of donor organs brought a resurgence of interest in animal sources. Attention focused on nonhuman primates, our species' closest evolutionary relatives. At Tulane University, surgeon Keith Reemstma performed the first chimpanzee-to-human kidney transplants in 1963 and '64. Although one of the 13 patients lived for nine months, the rest died within a few weeks due to organ rejection or infections. Other surgeons attempted liver and heart xenotransplants, with similar results. Even the advent of the first immunosuppressant drug, cyclosporine, in 1983, did little to improve survival rates.
In the 1980s, Cooper—a pioneering heart transplant surgeon who'd embraced the dream of xenotransplantation—began arguing that apes and monkeys might not be the best donor animals after all. "First of all, there's not enough of them," he explains. "They breed in ones and twos, and take years to grow to full size. Even then, their hearts aren't big enough for a 70-kg. patient." Pigs, he suggested, would be a more practical alternative. But when he tried transplanting pig organs into nonhuman primates (as surrogates for human recipients), they were rejected within minutes.
In 1992, Cooper's team identified a sugar on the surface of porcine cells, called alpha-1,3-galactose (a-gal), as the main target for the immune system's attack. By then, the first genetically modified pigs had appeared, and biotech companies—led by the Swiss-based pharma giant Novartis—began pouring millions of dollars into developing one whose organs could elude or resist the human body's defenses.
Disaster struck five years later, when scientists reported that a virus whose genetic code was written into pig DNA could infect human cells in lab experiments. Although there was no evidence that the virus, known as PERV (for porcine endogenous retrovirus) could cause disease in people, the discovery stirred fears that xenotransplants might unleash a deadly epidemic. Facing scrutiny from government regulators and protests from anti-GMO and animal-rights activists, Novartis "pulled out completely," Cooper recalls. "They slaughtered all their pigs and closed down their research facility." Competitors soon followed suit.
The riddles surrounding animal-to-human transplants are far from fully solved.
A New Chapter – With New Questions
Yet xenotransplantation's visionaries labored on, aided by advances in genetic engineering and immunosuppression, as well as in the scientific understanding of rejection. In 2003, a team led by Cooper's longtime colleague David Sachs, at Harvard Medical School, developed a pig lacking the gene for a-gal; over the next few years, other scientists knocked out genes expressing two more problematic sugars. In 2013, Muhammad Mohiuddin, then chief of the transplantation section at the NHLBI, further modified a group of triple-knockout pigs, adding genes that code for two human proteins: one that shields cells from attack by an immune mechanism known as the complement system; another that prevents harmful coagulation. (It was those pigs whose hearts recently broke survival records when transplanted into baboon bellies. Mohiuddin has since become director of xenoheart transplantation at the University of Maryland's new Center for Cardiac Xenotransplantation Research.) And in August 2017, researchers at Harvard Medical School, led by George Church and Luhan Yang, announced that they'd used CRISPR-cas9—an ultra-efficient new gene-editing technique—to disable 62 PERV genes in fetal pig cells, from which they then created cloned embryos. Of the 37 piglets born from this experiment, none showed any trace of the virus.
Still, the riddles surrounding animal-to-human transplants are far from fully solved. One open question is what further genetic manipulations will be necessary to eliminate all rejection. "No one is so naïve as to think, 'Oh, we know all the genes—let's put them in and we are done,'" biologist Sean Stevens, another leading researcher, told the The New York Times. "It's an iterative process, and no one that I know can say whether we will do two, or five, or 100 iterations." Adding traits can be dangerous as well; pigs engineered to express multiple anticoagulation proteins, for example, often die of bleeding disorders. "We're still finding out how many you can do, and what levels are acceptable," says Cooper.
Another question is whether PERV really needs to be disabled. Cooper and some of his colleagues note that pig tissue has long been used for various purposes, such as artificial heart valves and wound-repair products, without incident; requiring the virus to be eliminated, they argue, will unnecessarily slow progress toward creating viable xenotransplant organs and the animals that can provide them. Others disagree. "You cannot do anything with pig organs if you do not remove them," insists bioethicist Jeantine Lunshof, who works with Church and Yang at Harvard. "The risk is simply too big."
"We've removed the cells, so we don't have to worry about latent viruses."
Meanwhile, over the past decade, other approaches to xenotransplantation have emerged. One is interspecies blastocyst complementation, which could produce organs genetically identical to the recipient's tissues. In this method, genes that produce a particular organ are knocked out in the donor animal's embryo. The embryo is then injected with pluripotent stem cells made from the tissue of the intended recipient. The stem cells move in to fill the void, creating a functioning organ. This technique has been used to create mouse pancreases in rats, which were then successfully transplanted into mice. But the human-pig "chimeras" recently created by scientists were destroyed after 28 days, and no one plans to bring such an embryo to term anytime soon. "The problem is that cells don't stay put; they move around," explains Father Kevin FitzGerald, a bioethicist at Georgetown University. "If human cells wind up in a pig's brain, that leads to a really interesting conundrum. What if it's self-aware? Are you going to kill it?"
Much further along, and less ethically fraught, is a technique in which decellularized pig organs act as a scaffold for human cells. A Minnesota-based company called Miromatrix Medical is working with Mayo Clinic researchers to develop this method. First, a mild detergent is pumped through the organ, washing away all cellular material. The remaining structure, composed mainly of collagen, is placed in a bioreactor, where it's seeded with human cells. In theory, each type of cell that normally populates the organ will migrate to its proper place (a process that naturally occurs during fetal development, though it remains poorly understood). One potential advantage of this system is that it doesn't require genetically modified pigs; nor will the animals have to be raised under controlled conditions to avoid exposure to transmissible pathogens. Instead, the organs can be collected from ordinary slaughterhouses.
Recellularized livers in bioreactors
(Courtesy of Miromatrix)
"We've removed the cells, so we don't have to worry about latent viruses," explains CEO Jeff Ross, who describes his future product as a bioengineered human organ rather than a xeno-organ. That makes PERV a nonissue. To shorten the pathway to approval by the Food and Drug Administration, the replacement cells will initially come from human organs not suitable for transplant. But eventually, they'll be taken from the recipient (as in blastocyst complementation), which should eliminate the need for immunosuppression.
Clinical trials in xenotransplantation may begin as early as 2020.
Miromatrix plans to offer livers first, followed by kidneys, hearts, and eventually lungs and pancreases. The company recently succeeded in seeding several decellularized pig livers with human and porcine endothelial cells, which flocked obediently to the blood vessels. Transplanted into young pigs, the organs showed unimpaired circulation, with no sign of clotting. The next step is to feed all four liver cell types back into decellularized livers, and see if the transplanted organs will keep recipient pigs alive.
Ross hopes to launch clinical trials by 2020, and several other groups (including Cooper's, which plans to start with kidneys) envision a similar timeline. Investors seem to share their confidence. The biggest backer of xenotransplantation efforts is United Therapeutics, whose founder and co-CEO, Martine Rothblatt, has a daughter with a lung condition that may someday require a transplant; since 2011, the biotech firm has poured at least $100 million into companies pursuing such technologies, while supporting research by Cooper, Mohiuddin, and other leaders in the field. Church and Yang, at Harvard, have formed their own company, eGenesis, bringing in a reported $40 million in funding; Miromatrix has raised a comparable amount.
It's impossible to predict who will win the xenotransplantation race, or whether some new obstacle will stop the competition in its tracks. But Jennifer Cisneros is rooting for all the contestants. "These technologies could save my life," she says. If she hasn't found another kidney before trials begin, she has just one request: "Sign me up."
In December 1958, on a vacation with his wife in Kenya, a 28-year-old British tea broker named Robin Cavendish became suddenly ill. Neither he nor his wife Diana knew it at the time, but Robin's illness would change the course of medical history forever.
Robin was rushed to a nearby hospital in Kenya where the medical staff delivered the crushing news: Robin had contracted polio, and the paralysis creeping up his body was almost certainly permanent. The doctors placed Robin on a ventilator through a tracheotomy in his neck, as the paralysis from his polio infection had rendered him unable to breathe on his own – and going off the average life expectancy at the time, they gave him only three months to live. Robin and Diana (who was pregnant at the time with their first child, Jonathan) flew back to England so he could be admitted to a hospital. They mentally prepared to wait out Robin's final days.
But Robin did something unexpected when he returned to the UK – just one of many things that would astonish doctors over the next several years: He survived. Diana gave birth to Jonathan in February 1959 and continued to visit Robin regularly in the hospital with the baby. Despite doctors warning that he would soon succumb to his illness, Robin kept living.
After a year in the hospital, Diana suggested something radical: She wanted Robin to leave the hospital and live at home in South Oxfordshire for as long as he possibly could, with her as his nurse. At the time, this suggestion was unheard of. People like Robin who depended on machinery to keep them breathing had only ever lived inside hospital walls, as the prevailing belief was that the machinery needed to keep them alive was too complicated for laypeople to operate. But Diana and Robin were up for the challenges – and the risks. Because his ventilator ran on electricity, if the house were to unexpectedly lose power, Diana would either need to restore power quickly or hand-pump air into his lungs to keep him alive.
Robin's wheelchair was not only the first of its kind; it became the model for the respiratory wheelchairs that people still use today.
In an interview as an adult, Jonathan Cavendish reflected on his parents' decision to live outside the hospital on a ventilator: "My father's mantra was quality of life," he explained. "He could have stayed in the hospital, but he didn't think that was as good of a life as he could manage. He would rather be two minutes away from death and living a full life."
After a few years of living at home, however, Robin became tired of being confined to his bed. He longed to sit outside, to visit friends, to travel – but had no way of doing so without his ventilator. So together with his friend Teddy Hall, a professor and engineer at Oxford University, the two collaborated in 1962 to create an entirely new invention: a battery-operated wheelchair prototype with a ventilator built in. With this, Robin could now venture outside the house – and soon the Cavendish family became famous for taking vacations. It was something that, by all accounts, had never been done before by someone who was ventilator-dependent. Robin and Hall also designed a van so that the wheelchair could be plugged in and powered during travel. Jonathan Cavendish later recalled a particular family vacation that nearly ended in disaster when the van broke down outside of Barcelona, Spain:
"My poor old uncle [plugged] my father's chair into the wrong socket," Cavendish later recalled, causing the electricity to short. "There was fire and smoke, and both the van and the chair ground to a halt." Johnathan, who was eight or nine at the time, his mother, and his uncle took turns hand-pumping Robin's ventilator by the roadside for the next thirty-six hours, waiting for Professor Hall to arrive in town and repair the van. Rather than being panicked, the Cavendishes managed to turn the vigil into a party. Townspeople came to greet them, bringing food and music, and a local priest even stopped by to give his blessing.
Robin had become a pioneer, showing the world that a person with severe disabilities could still have mobility, access, and a fuller quality of life than anyone had imagined. His mission, along with Hall's, then became gifting this independence to others like himself. Robin and Hall raised money – first from the Ernest Kleinwort Charitable Trust, and then from the British Department of Health – to fund more ventilator chairs, which were then manufactured by Hall's company, Littlemore Scientific Engineering, and given to fellow patients who wanted to live full lives at home. Robin and Hall used themselves as guinea pigs, testing out different models of the chairs and collaborating with scientists to create other devices for those with disabilities. One invention, called the Possum, allowed paraplegics to control things like the telephone and television set with just a nod of the head. Robin's wheelchair was not only the first of its kind; it became the model for the respiratory wheelchairs that people still use today.
Robin went on to enjoy a long and happy life with his family at their house in South Oxfordshire, surrounded by friends who would later attest to his "down-to-earth" personality, his sense of humor, and his "irresistible" charm. When he died peacefully at his home in 1994 at age 64, he was considered the world's oldest-living person who used a ventilator outside the hospital – breaking yet another barrier for what medical science thought was possible.
Sarah Watts is a health and science writer based in Chicago. Follow her on Twitter at @swattswrites.
In June 2012, Kirstie Ennis was six months into her second deployment to Afghanistan and recently promoted to sergeant. The helicopter gunner and seven others were three hours into a routine mission of combat resupplies and troop transport when their CH-53D helicopter went down hard.
Miraculously, all eight people onboard survived, but Ennis' injuries were many and severe. She had a torn rotator cuff, torn labrum, crushed cervical discs, facial fractures, deep lacerations and traumatic brain injury. Despite a severely fractured ankle, doctors managed to save her foot, for a while at least.
In November 2015, after three years of constant pain and too many surgeries to count, Ennis relented. She elected to undergo a lower leg amputation but only after she completed the 1,000-mile, 72-day Walking with the Wounded journey across the UK.
On Veteran's Day of that year, on the other side of the country, orthopedic surgeon Cato Laurencin announced a moonshot challenge he was setting out to achieve on behalf of wounded warriors like Ennis: the Hartford Engineering A Limb (HEAL) Project.
Laurencin, who is a University of Connecticut professor of chemical, materials and biomedical engineering, teamed up with experts in tissue bioengineering and regenerative medicine from Harvard, Columbia, UC Irvine and SASTRA University in India. Laurencin and his colleagues at the Connecticut Convergence Institute for Translation in Regenerative Engineering made a bold commitment to regenerate an entire limb within 15 years – by the year 2030.
Dr. Cato Laurencin pictured in his office at UConn.
Photo Credit: UConn
Regenerative Engineering -- A Whole New Field
Limb regeneration in humans has been a medical and scientific fascination for decades, with little to show for the effort. However, Laurencin believes that if we are to reach the next level of 21st century medical advances, this puzzle must be solved.
An estimated 185,000 people undergo upper or lower limb amputation every year. Despite the significant advances in electromechanical prosthetics, these individuals still lack the ability to perform complex functions such as sensation for tactile input, normal gait and movement feedback. As far as Laurencin is concerned, the only clinical answer that makes sense is to regenerate a whole functional limb.
Laurencin feels other regeneration efforts were hampered by their siloed research methods with chemists, surgeons, engineers all working separately. Success, he argues, requires a paradigm shift to a trans-disciplinary approach that brings together cutting-edge technologies from disparate fields such as biology, material sciences, physical, chemical and engineering sciences.
As the only surgeon ever inducted into the academies of Science, Medicine and Innovation, Laurencin is uniquely suited for the challenge. He is regarded as the founder of Regenerative Engineering, defined as the convergence of advanced materials sciences, stem cell sciences, physics, developmental biology and clinical translation for the regeneration of complex tissues and organ systems.
But none of this is achievable without early clinician participation across scientific fields to develop new technologies and a deeper understanding of how to harness the body's innate regenerative capabilities. "When I perform a surgical procedure or something is torn or needs to be repaired, I count on the body being involved in regenerating tissue," he says. "So, understanding how the body works to regenerate itself and harnessing that ability is an important factor for the regeneration process."
The Birth of the Vision
Laurencin's passion for regeneration began when he was a sports medicine fellow at Cornell University Medical Center in the early 1990s. There he saw a significant number of injuries to the anterior cruciate ligament (ACL), the major ligament that stabilizes the knee. He believed he could develop a better way to address those injuries using biomaterials to regenerate the ligament. He sketched out a preliminary drawing on a napkin one night over dinner. He has spent the next 30 years regenerating tissues, including the patented L-C ligament.
As chair of Orthopaedic Surgery at the University of Virginia during the peak of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, Laurencin treated military personnel who survived because of improved helmets, body armor and battlefield medicine but were left with more devastating injuries, including traumatic brain injuries and limb loss.
"I was so honored to care for them and I so admired their steadfast courage that I became determined to do something big for them," says Laurencin.
When he tells people about his plans to regrow a limb, he gets a lot of eye rolls, which he finds amusing but not discouraging. Growing bone cells was relatively new when he was first focused on regenerating bone in 1987 at MIT; in 2007 he was well on his way to regenerating ligaments at UVA when many still doubted that ligaments could even be reconstructed. He and his team have already regenerated torn rotator cuff tendons and ACL ligaments using a nano-textured fabric seeded with stem cells.
Even as a finalist for the $4 million NIH Pioneer Award for high-risk/high-reward research, he faced a skeptical scientific audience in 2014. "They said, 'Well what do you plan to do?' I said 'I plan to regenerate a whole limb in people.' There was a lot of incredulousness. They stared at me and asked a lot of questions. About three days later, I received probably the best score I've ever gotten on an NIH grant."
In the Thick of the Science
Humans are born with regenerative abilities--two-year-olds have regrown fingertips--but lose that ability with age. Salamanders are the only vertebrates that can regenerate lost body parts as adults; axolotl, the rare Mexican salamander, can grow extra limbs.
The axolotl is important as a model organism because it is a four-footed vertebrate with a similar body plan to humans. Mapping the axolotl genome in 2018 enhanced scientists' genetic understanding of their evolution, development, and regeneration. Being easy to breed in captivity allowed the HEAL team to closely study these amphibians and discover a new cell type they believe may shed light on how to mimic the process in humans.
"Whenever limb regeneration takes place in the salamander, there is a huge amount of something called heparan sulfate around that area," explains Laurencin. "We thought, 'What if this heparan sulfate is the key ingredient to allowing regeneration to take place?' We found these groups of cells that were interspersed in tissues during the time of regeneration that seemed to have connections to each other that expressed this heparan sulfate."
Called GRID (Groups that are Regenerative, Interspersed and Dendritic), these cells were also recently discovered in mice. While GRID cells don't regenerate as well in mice as in salamanders, finding them in mammals was significant.
"If they're found in mice. we might be able to find these in humans in some form," Laurencin says. "We think maybe it will help us figure out regeneration or we can create cells that mimic what grid cells do and create an artificial grid cell."
What Comes Next?
Laurencin and his team have individually engineered and made every single tissue in the lower limb, including bone, cartilage, ligament, skin, nerve, blood vessels. Regenerating joints and joint tissue is the next big mile marker, which Laurencin sees as essential to regenerating a limb that functions and performs in the way he envisions.
"Using stem cells and amnion tissue, we can regenerate joints that are damaged, and have severe arthritis," he says. "We're making progress on all fronts, and making discoveries we believe are going to be helping people along the way."
That focus and advancement is vital to Ennis. After laboring over the decision to have her leg amputated below the knee, she contracted MRSA two weeks post-surgery. In less than a month, she went from a below-the-knee-amputee to a through-the-knee amputee to an above-the-knee amputee.
"A below-the-knee amputation is night-and-day from above-the-knee," she said. "You have to relearn everything. You're basically a toddler."
Kirstie Ennis pictured in July 2020.
Photo Credit: Ennis' Instagram
The clock is ticking on the timeline Laurencin set for himself. Nine years might seem like forever if you're doing time but it might appear fleeting when you're trying to create something that's never been done before. But Laurencin isn't worried. He's convinced time is on his side.
"Every week, I receive an email or a call from someone, maybe a mother whose child has lost a finger or I'm in communication with a disabled American veteran who wants to know how the progress is going. That energizes me to continue to work hard to try to create these sorts of solutions because we're talking about people and their lives."
He devotes about 60 hours a week to the project and the roughly 100 students, faculty and staff who make up the HEAL team at the Convergence Institute seem acutely aware of what's at stake and appear equally dedicated.
"We're in the thick of the science in terms of making this happen," says Laurencin. "We've moved from making the impossible possible to making the possible a reality. That's what science is all about."