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."
The white two-seater car that rolls down the street in the Sorrento Valley of San Diego looks like a futuristic batmobile, with its long aerodynamic tail and curved underbelly. Called 'Sol' (Spanish for "sun"), it runs solely on solar and could be the future of green cars. Its maker, the California startup Aptera, has announced the production of Sol, the world's first mass-produced solar vehicle, by the end of this year. Aptera co-founder Chris Anthony points to the sky as he says, "On this sunny California day, there is ample fuel. You never need to charge the car."
If you live in a sunny state like California or Florida, you might never need to plug in the streamlined Sol because the solar panels recharge while driving and parked. Its 60-mile range is more than the average commuter needs. For cloudy weather, battery packs can be recharged electronically for a range of up to 1,000 miles. The ultra-aerodynamic shape made of lightweight materials such as carbon, Kevlar, and hemp makes the Sol four times more energy-efficient than a Tesla, according to Aptera. "The material is seven times stronger than steel and even survives hail or an angry ex-girlfriend," Anthony promises.
Co-founder Steve Fambro opens the Sol's white doors that fly upwards like wings and I get inside for a test drive. Two dozen square solar panels, each the size of a large square coaster, on the roof, front, and tail power the car. The white interior is spartan; monitors have replaced mirrors and the dashboard. An engineer sits in the driver's seat, hits the pedal, and the low-drag two-seater zooms from 0 to 60 in 3.5 seconds.
It feels like sitting in a race car because the two-seater is so low to the ground but the car is built to go no faster than 100 or 110 mph. The finished car will weigh less than 1,800 pounds, about half of the smallest Tesla. The average car, by comparison, weighs more than double that. "We've built it primarily for energy efficiency," Steve Fambro says, explaining why the Sol has only three wheels. It's technically an "auto-cycle," a hybrid between a motorcycle and a car, but Aptera's designers are also working to design a four-seater.
There has never been a lack of grand visions for the future of the automobile, but until these solar cars actually hit the streets, nobody knows how the promises will hold up.
Transportation is currently the biggest source of greenhouse gases. Developing an efficient solar car that does not burden the grid has been the dream of innovators for decades. Every other year, dozens of innovators race their self-built solar cars 2,000 miles through the Australian desert.
More effective solar panels are finally making the dream mass-compatible, but just like other innovative car ideas, Aptera's vision has been plagued with money problems. Anthony and Fambro were part of the original crew that founded Aptera in 2006 and worked on the first prototype around the same time Tesla built its first roadster, but Aptera went bankrupt in 2011. Anthony and Fambro left a year before the bankruptcy and went on to start other companies. Among other projects, Fambro developed the first USDA organic vertical farm in the United Arab Emirates, and Anthony built a lithium battery company, before the two decided to buy Aptera back. Without a billionaire such as Elon Musk bankrolling the risky process of establishing a whole new car production system from scratch, the huge production costs are almost insurmountable.
But Aptera's founders believe they have found solutions for the entire production process as well as the car design. Most parts of the Sol's body can be made by 3D printers and assembled like a Lego kit. If this makes you think of a toy car, Anthony assures potential buyers that the car aced stress tests and claims it's safer than any vehicle on the market, "because the interior is shaped like an egg and if there is an impact, the pressure gets distributed equally." However, Aptera has yet to release crash test safety data so outside experts cannot evaluate their claims.
Instead of building a huge production facility, Anthony and Fambro envision "micro-factories," each less than 10,000 square feet, where a small crew can assemble cars on demand wherever the orders are highest, be it in California, Canada, or China.
If a part of the Sol breaks, Aptera promises to send replacement parts to any corner of the world within 24 hours, with instructions. So a mechanic in a rural corner in Arkansas or China who never worked on a solar car before simply needs to download the instructions and replace the broken part. At least that's the idea. "The material does not rust nor fatigue," Fambro promises. "You can pass the car onto your grandchildren. When more efficient solar panels hit the market, we simply replace them."
More than 11,000 potential buyers have already signed up; the cheapest model costs around $26,000 USD and Aptera expects the first cars to ship by the end of the year.
Two other solar carmakers are vying for the pole position in the race to be the first to market: The German startup Sono has also announced it will also produce its first solar car by the end of this year. The price tag for the basic model is also around $26,000, but its concept is very different. From the outside, the Sion looks like a conservative minivan for a family; only a closer look reveals that the dark exterior is made of solar panels. Sono, too, nearly went bankrupt a few years ago and was saved through a crowdfunding campaign by enthusiastic fans.
Meanwhile, Norwegian company Lightyear wants to produce a sleek solar-powered luxury sedan by the end of the year, but its price of around $180,000 makes it unaffordable for most buyers.
There has never been a lack of grand visions for the future of the automobile, but until these solar cars actually hit the streets, nobody knows how the promises will hold up. How often will the cars need to be repaired? What happens when snow and ice cover the solar panels? Also, you can't park the car in a garage if you need the sun to charge it.
Critics, including students at the Solar Car team at the University of Michigan, say that mounting solar panels on a moving vehicle will never yield the most efficient results compared to static panels. Also, they are quick to point out that no company has managed to overcome the production hurdles yet. Others in the field also wonder how well the solar panels will actually work.
"It's important to realize that the solar mileage claims by these companies are likely the theoretical best case scenario but in the real world, solar range will be significantly less when you factor in shading, parking in garages, and geographies with lower solar irradiance," says Evan Stumpges, the team coordinator for the American Solar Challenge, a competition in which enthusiasts build and race solar-powered cars. "The encouraging thing is that I have seen videos of real working prototypes for each of these vehicles which is a key accomplishment. That said, I believe the biggest hurdle these companies have yet to face is successfully ramping up to volume production and understanding what their profitability point will be for selling the vehicles once production has stabilized."
Professor Daniel M. Kammen, the founding director of the Renewable and Appropriate Energy Laboratory at the University of California, Berkeley, and one of the world's foremost experts on renewable energy, believes that the technical challenges have been solved, and that solar cars have real advantages over electric vehicles.
"This is the right time to be bullish. Cutting out the charging is a natural solution for long rides," he says. "These vehicles are essentially solar panels and batteries on wheels. These are now record low-cost and can be built from sustainable materials." Apart from Aptera's no-charge technology, he appreciates the move toward no-conflict materials. "Not only is the time ripe but the youth movement is pushing toward conflict-free material and reducing resource waste....A low-cost solar fleet could be really interesting in relieving burden on the grid, or you could easily imagine a city buying a bunch of them and connecting them with mass transit." While he has followed all three new solar companies with interest, he has already ordered an Aptera car for himself, "because it's American and it looks the most different."
After taking a spin in the Sol, it is startling to switch back into a regular four-seater. Rolling out of Aptera's parking lot onto the freeway next to all the oversized gas guzzlers that need to stop every couple of hundreds of miles to fill up, one can't help but think: We've just taken a trip into the future.
Last summer, when fast and cheap Covid tests were in high demand and governments were struggling to manufacture and distribute them, a group of independent scientists working together had a bit of a breakthrough.
Working on the Just One Giant Lab platform, an online community that serves as a kind of clearing house for open science researchers to find each other and work together, they managed to create a simple, one-hour Covid test that anyone could take at home with just a cup of hot water. The group tested it across a network of home and professional laboratories before being listed as a semi-finalist team for the XPrize, a competition that rewards innovative solutions-based projects. Then, the group hit a wall: they couldn't commercialize the test.
They wanted to keep their project open source, making it accessible to people around the world, so they decided to forgo traditional means of intellectual property protection and didn't seek patents. (They couldn't afford lawyers anyway). And, as a loose-knit group that was not supported by a traditional scientific institution, working in community labs and homes around the world, they had no access to resources or financial support for manufacturing or distributing their test at scale.
But without ethical and regulatory approval for clinical testing, manufacture, and distribution, they were legally unable to create field tests for real people, leaving their inexpensive, $16-per-test, innovative product languishing behind, while other, more expensive over-the-counter tests made their way onto the market.
Who Are These Radical Scientists?
Independent, decentralized biomedical research has come of age. Also sometimes called DIYbio, biohacking, or community biology, depending on whom you ask, open research is today a global movement with thousands of members, from scientists with advanced degrees to middle-grade students. Their motivations and interests vary across a wide spectrum, but transparency and accessibility are key to the ethos of the movement. Teams are agile, focused on shoestring-budget R&D, and aim to disrupt business as usual in the ivory towers of the scientific establishment.
Ethics oversight is critical to ensuring that research is conducted responsibly, even by biohackers.
Initiatives developed within the community, such as Open Insulin, which hopes to engineer processes for affordable, small-batch insulin production, "Slybera," a provocative attempt to reverse engineer a $1 million dollar gene therapy, and the hundreds of projects posted on the collaboration platform Just One Giant Lab during the pandemic, all have one thing in common: to pursue testing in humans, they need an ethics oversight mechanism.
These groups, most of which operate collaboratively in community labs, homes, and online, recognize that some sort of oversight or guidance is useful—and that it's the right thing to do.
But also, and perhaps more immediately, they need it because federal rules require ethics oversight of any biomedical research that's headed in the direction of the consumer market. In addition, some individuals engaged in this work do want to publish their research in traditional scientific journals, which—you guessed it—also require that research has undergone an ethics evaluation. Ethics oversight is critical to ensuring that research is conducted responsibly, even by biohackers.
Bridging the Ethics Gap
The problem is that traditional oversight mechanisms, such as institutional review boards at government or academic research institutions, as well as the private boards utilized by pharmaceutical companies, are not accessible to most independent researchers. Traditional review boards are either closed to the public, or charge fees that are out of reach for many citizen science initiatives. This has created an "ethics gap" in nontraditional scientific research.
Biohackers are seen in some ways as the direct descendents of "white hat" computer hackers, or those focused on calling out security holes and contributing solutions to technical problems within self-regulating communities. In the case of health and biotechnology, those problems include both the absence of treatments and the availability of only expensive treatments for certain conditions. As the DIYbio community grows, there needs to be a way to provide assurance that, when the work is successful, the public is able to benefit from it eventually. The team that developed the one-hour Covid test found a potential commercial partner and so might well overcome the oversight hurdle, but it's been 14 months since they developed the test--and counting.
In short, without some kind of oversight mechanism for the work of independent biomedical researchers, the solutions they innovate will never have the opportunity to reach consumers.
In a new paper in the journal Citizen Science: Theory & Practice, we consider the issue of the ethics gap and ask whether ethics oversight is something nontraditional researchers want, and if so, what forms it might take. Given that individuals within these communities sometimes vehemently disagree with each other, is consensus on these questions even possible?
We learned that there is no "one size fits all" solution for ethics oversight of nontraditional research. Rather, the appropriateness of any oversight model will depend on each initiative's objectives, needs, risks, and constraints.
We also learned that nontraditional researchers are generally willing (and in some cases eager) to engage with traditional scientific, legal, and bioethics experts on ethics, safety, and related questions.
We suggest that these experts make themselves available to help nontraditional researchers build infrastructure for ethics self-governance and identify when it might be necessary to seek outside assistance.
Independent biomedical research has promise, but like any emerging science, it poses novel ethical questions and challenges. Existing research ethics and oversight frameworks may not be well-suited to answer them in every context, so we need to think outside the box about what we can create for the future. That process should begin by talking to independent biomedical researchers about their activities, priorities, and concerns with an eye to understanding how best to support them.
Christi Guerrini, JD, MPH studies biomedical citizen science and is an Associate Professor at Baylor College of Medicine. Alex Pearlman, MA, is a science journalist and bioethicist who writes about emerging issues in biotechnology. They have recently launched outlawbio.org, a place for discussion about nontraditional research.