Sammy Basso has some profound ideas about fate. As long as he has been alive, he has known he has minimal control over his own. His parents, however, had to transition from a world of unlimited possibility to one in which their son might not live to his 20s.
"I remember very clearly that day because Sammy was three years old," his mother says of the day a genetic counselor diagnosed Sammy with progeria. "It was a devastating day for me."
But to Sammy, he has always been himself: a smart kid, interested in science, a little smaller than his classmates, with one notable kink in his DNA. In one copy of the gene that codes for the protein Lamin A, Sammy has a T where there should be a C. The incorrect code creates a toxic protein called progerin, which destabilizes Sammy's cells and makes him age much faster than a person who doesn't have the mutation. The older he gets, the more he is in danger of strokes, heart failure, or a heart attack. "I am okay with my situation," he says from his home in Tezze sul Brenta, Italy. "But I think, yes, fate has a great role in my life."
Just 400 or so people in the world live with progeria: The mutation that causes it usually arises de novo, or "of new," meaning that it is not inherited but happens spontaneously during gestation. The challenge, as with all rare diseases, is that few cases means few treatments.
"When we first started, there was absolutely nothing out there," says Leslie Gordon, a physician-researcher who co-founded the Progeria Research Foundation in 1999 after her own son, also named Sam, was diagnosed with the disease. "We knew we had to jumpstart the entire field, so we collected money through road races and special events and writing grants and all sorts of donors… I think the first year we raised $75,000, most of it from one donor."
"We have not only the possibility but the responsibility to make the world a better world, and also to make a body a better body."
By 2003, the foundation had collaborated with Francis Collins, a geneticist who is now director of the National Institutes of Health, to work out the genetic basis for progeria—that single mutation Sammy has. The discovery led to interest in lonafarnib, a drug that was already being used in cancer patients but could potentially operate downstream of the mutation, preventing the buildup of the defective progerin in the body. "We funded cellular studies to look at a lonafarnib in cells, mouse studies to look at lonafarnib in mouse models of progeria… and then we initiated the clinical trials," Gordon says.
Sammy Basso's family had gotten involved with the Progeria Research Foundation through their international patient registry, which maintains relationships with families in 49 countries. "We started to hear about lonafarnib in 2006 from Leslie Gordon," says Sammy's father, Amerigo Basso, with his son translating. "She told us about the lonafarnib. And we were very happy because for the first time we understood that there was something that could help our son and our lives." Amerigo used the Italian word speranza, which means hope.
Still, Sammy wasn't sure if lonafarnib was right for him. "Since when I was very young I thought that everything happens for a reason. So, in my mind, if God made me with progeria, there was a reason, and to try to heal from progeria was something wrong," he says. Gradually, his parents and doctors, and Leslie Gordon, convinced him otherwise. Sammy began to believe that God was also the force behind doctors, science, and research. "And so we have not only the possibility but the responsibility to make the world a better world, and also to make a body a better body," he says.
Sammy Basso and his parents.
Courtesy of Basso
Sammy began taking lonafarnib, with the Progeria Research Foundation intermittently flying him, and other international trial participants, to Boston for tests. He was immediately beset by some of the drug's more unpleasant side effects: Stomach problems, nausea, and vomiting. "The first period was absolutely the worst period of my life," he says.
At first, doctors prescribed other medicines for the side effects, but to Sammy it had as much effect as drinking water. He visited doctor after doctor, with some calling him weekly or even daily to ask how he was doing. Eventually the specialists decided that he should lower his dose, balancing his pain with the benefit of the drug. Sammy can't actually feel any positive effect of the lonafarnib, but his health measurements have improved relative to people with progeria who don't take it.
While they never completely disappeared, Sammy's side effects decreased to the point that he could live. Inspired by the research that led to lonafarnib, he went to university to study molecular biology. For his thesis work, he travelled to Spain to perform experiments on cells and on mice with progeria, learning how to use the gene-editing technique CRISPR-Cas9 to cut out the mutated bit of DNA. "I was so excited to participate in this study," Sammy says. He felt like his work could make a difference.
In 2018, the Progeria Research Foundation was hosting one of their biennial workshops when Francis Collins, the researcher who had located the mutation behind progeria 15 years earlier, got in touch with Leslie Gordon. "Francis called me and said, Hey, I just saw a talk by David Liu from the Broad [Institute]. And it was pretty amazing. He has been looking at progeria and has very early, but very exciting data… Do you have any spaces, any slots you could make in your program for late breaking news?"
Gordon found a spot, and David Liu came to talk about what was going on in his lab, which was an even more advanced treatment that led to mice with the progeria mutation living into their senior mouse years—substantially closer to a normal lifespan. Liu's lab had built on the idea of CRISPR-Cas9 to create a more elegant genetic process called base editing: Instead of chopping out mutated DNA, a scientist could chemically convert an incorrect DNA letter to the correct one, like the search and replace function in word processing software. Mice who had their Lamin-A mutations corrected this way lived more than twice as long as untreated animals.
Sammy was in the audience at Dr. Liu's talk. "When I heard about this base editing as a younger scientist, I thought that I was living in the future," he says. "When my parents had my diagnosis of progeria, the science knew very little information about DNA. And now we are talking about healing the DNA… It is incredible."
Lonafarnib (also called Zokinvy) was approved by the US Food and Drug Administration this past November. Sammy, now 25, still takes it, and still manages his side effects. With luck, the gift of a few extra years will act as a bridge until he can try Liu's revolutionary new gene treatment, which has not yet begun testing in humans. While Leslie Gordon warns that she's always wrong about things like this, she hopes to see the new base editing techniques in clinical trials in the next year or two. Sammy won't need to be convinced to try it this time; his thinking on fate has evolved since his first encounter with lonafarnib.
"I would be very happy to try it," he says. "I know that for a non-scientist it can be difficult to understand. Some people think that we are the DNA. We are not. The DNA is a part of us, and to correct it is to do what we are already doing—just better." In short, a gene therapy, while it may seem like science fiction, is no different from a pill. For Sammy, both are a new way to think about fate: No longer something that simply happens to him.
In June, a team of surgeons at Duke University Hospital implanted the latest model of an artificial heart in a 39-year-old man with severe heart failure, a condition in which the heart doesn't pump properly. The man's mechanical heart, made by French company Carmat, is a new generation artificial heart and the first of its kind to be transplanted in the United States. It connects to a portable external power supply and is designed to keep the patient alive until a replacement organ becomes available.
Many patients die while waiting for a heart transplant, but artificial hearts can bridge the gap. Though not a permanent solution for heart failure, artificial hearts have saved countless lives since their first implantation in 1982.
What might surprise you is that the origin of the artificial heart dates back decades before, when an inventive television actor teamed up with a famous doctor to design and patent the first such device.
A man of many talents
Paul Winchell was an entertainer in the 1950s and 60s, rising to fame as a ventriloquist and guest-starring as an actor on programs like "The Ed Sullivan Show" and "Perry Mason." When children's animation boomed in the 1960s, Winchell made a name for himself as a voice actor on shows like "The Smurfs," "Winnie the Pooh," and "The Jetsons." He eventually became famous for originating the voices of Tigger from "Winnie the Pooh" and Gargamel from "The Smurfs," among many others.
But Winchell wasn't just an entertainer: He also had a quiet passion for science and medicine. Between television gigs, Winchell busied himself working as a medical hypnotist and acupuncturist, treating the same Hollywood stars he performed alongside. When he wasn't doing that, Winchell threw himself into engineering and design, building not only the ventriloquism dummies he used on his television appearances but a host of products he'd dreamed up himself. Winchell spent hours tinkering with his own inventions, such as a set of battery-powered gloves and something called a "flameless lighter." Over the course of his life, Winchell designed and patented more than 30 of these products – mostly novelties, but also serious medical devices, such as a portable blood plasma defroster.
|Ventriloquist Paul Winchell with Jerry Mahoney, his dummy, in 1951|
A meeting of the minds
In the early 1950s, Winchell appeared on a variety show called the "Arthur Murray Dance Party" and faced off in a dance competition with the legendary Ricardo Montalban (Winchell won). At a cast party for the show later that same night, Winchell met Dr. Henry Heimlich – the same doctor who would later become famous for inventing the Heimlich maneuver, who was married to Murray's daughter. The two hit it off immediately, bonding over their shared interest in medicine. Before long, Heimlich invited Winchell to come observe him in the operating room at the hospital where he worked. Winchell jumped at the opportunity, and not long after he became a frequent guest in Heimlich's surgical theatre, fascinated by the mechanics of the human body.
One day while Winchell was observing at the hospital, he witnessed a patient die on the operating table after undergoing open-heart surgery. He was suddenly struck with an idea: If there was some way doctors could keep blood pumping temporarily throughout the body during surgery, patients who underwent risky operations like open-heart surgery might have a better chance of survival. Winchell rushed to Heimlich with the idea – and Heimlich agreed to advise Winchell and look over any design drafts he came up with. So Winchell went to work.
As it turned out, building ventriloquism dummies wasn't that different from building an artificial heart, Winchell noted later in his autobiography – the shifting valves and chambers of the mechanical heart were similar to the moving eyes and opening mouths of his puppets. After each design, Winchell would go back to Heimlich and the two would confer, making adjustments along the way to.
By 1956, Winchell had perfected his design: The "heart" consisted of a bag that could be placed inside the human body, connected to a battery-powered motor outside of the body. The motor enabled the bag to pump blood throughout the body, similar to a real human heart. Winchell received a patent for the design in 1963.
At the time, Winchell never quite got the credit he deserved. Years later, researchers at the University of Utah, working on their own artificial heart, came across Winchell's patent and got in touch with Winchell to compare notes. Winchell ended up donating his patent to the team, which included Dr. Richard Jarvik. Jarvik expanded on Winchell's design and created the Jarvik-7 – the world's first artificial heart to be successfully implanted in a human being in 1982.
The Jarvik-7 has since been replaced with newer, more efficient models made up of different synthetic materials, allowing patients to live for longer stretches without the heart clogging or breaking down. With each new generation of hearts, heart failure patients have been able to live relatively normal lives for longer periods of time and with fewer complications than before – and it never would have been possible without the unsung genius of a puppeteer and his love of science.
Sarah Watts is a health and science writer based in Chicago. Follow her on Twitter at @swattswrites.
Elaine Kamil had just returned home after a few days of business meetings in 2013 when she started having chest pains. At first Kamil, then 66, wasn't worried—she had had some chest pain before and recently went to a cardiologist to do a stress test, which was normal.
"I can't be having a heart attack because I just got checked," she thought, attributing the discomfort to stress and high demands of her job. A pediatric nephrologist at Cedars-Sinai Hospital in Los Angeles, she takes care of critically ill children who are on dialysis or are kidney transplant patients. Supporting families through difficult times and answering calls at odd hours is part of her daily routine, and often leaves her exhausted.
She figured the pain would go away. But instead, it intensified that night. Kamil's husband drove her to the Cedars-Sinai hospital, where she was admitted to the coronary care unit. It turned out she wasn't having a heart attack after all. Instead, she was diagnosed with a much less common but nonetheless dangerous heart condition called takotsubo syndrome, or broken heart syndrome.
A heart attack happens when blood flow to the heart is obstructed—such as when an artery is blocked—causing heart muscle tissue to die. In takotsubo syndrome, the blood flow isn't blocked, but the heart doesn't pump it properly. The heart changes its shape and starts to resemble a Japanese fishing device called tako-tsubo, a clay pot with a wider body and narrower mouth, used to catch octopus.
"The heart muscle is stunned and doesn't function properly anywhere from three days to three weeks," explains Noel Bairey Merz, the cardiologist at Cedar Sinai who Kamil went to see after she was discharged.
"The heart muscle is stunned and doesn't function properly anywhere from three days to three weeks."
But even though the heart isn't permanently damaged, mortality rates due to takotsubo syndrome are comparable to those of a heart attack, Merz notes—about 4-5% of patients die from the attack, and 20% within the next five years. "It's as bad as a heart attack," Merz says—only it's much less known, even to doctors. The condition affects only about 1% of people, and there are around 15,000 new cases annually. It's diagnosed using a cardiac ventriculogram, an imaging test that allows doctors to see how the heart pumps blood.
Scientists don't fully understand what causes Takotsubo syndrome, but it usually occurs after extreme emotional or physical stress. Doctors think it's triggered by a so-called catecholamine storm, a phenomenon in which the body releases too much catecholamines—hormones involved in the fight-or-flight response. Evolutionarily, when early humans lived in savannas or forests and had to either fight off predators or flee from them, these hormones gave our ancestors the needed strength and stamina to take either action. Released by nerve endings and by the adrenal glands that sit on top of the kidneys, these hormones still flood our bodies in moments of stress, but an overabundance of them could sometimes be damaging.
A recent study by scientists at Harvard Medical School linked increased risk of takotsubo to higher activity in the amygdala, a brain region responsible for emotions that's involved in responses to stress. The scientists believe that chronic stress makes people more susceptible to the syndrome. Notably, one small study suggested that the number of Takotsubo cases increased during the COVID-19 pandemic.
There are no specific drugs to treat takotsubo, so doctors rely on supportive therapies, which include medications typically used for high blood pressure and heart failure. In most cases, the heart returns to its normal shape within a few weeks. "It's a spontaneous recovery—the catecholamine storm is resolved, the injury trigger is removed and the heart heals itself because our bodies have an amazing healing capacity," Merz says. It also helps that tissues remain intact. 'The heart cells don't die, they just aren't functioning properly for some time."
That's the good news. The bad news is that takotsubo is likely to strike again—in 5-20% of patients the condition comes back, sometimes more severe than before.
That's exactly what happened to Kamil. After getting her diagnosis in 2013, she realized that she actually had a previous takotsubo episode. In 2010, she experienced similar symptoms after her son died. "The night after he died, I was having severe chest pain at night, but I was too overwhelmed with grief to do anything about it," she recalls. After a while, the pain subsided and didn't return until three years later.
For weeks after her second attack, she felt exhausted, listless and anxious. "You lose confidence in your body," she says. "You have these little twinges on your chest, or if you start having arrhythmia, and you wonder if this is another episode coming up. It's really unnerving because you don't know how to read these cues." And that's very typical, Merz says. Even when the heart muscle appears to recover, patients don't return to normal right away. They have shortens of breath, they can't exercise, and they stay anxious and worried for a while.
Women over the age of 50 are diagnosed with takotsubo more often than other demographics. However, it happens in men too, although it typically strikes after physical stress, such as a triathlon or an exhausting day of cycling. Young people can also get takotsubo. Older patients are hospitalized more often, but younger people tend to have more severe complications. It could be because an older person may go for a jog while younger one may run a marathon, which would take a stronger toll on the body of a person who's predisposed to the condition.
Notably, the emotional stressors don't always have to be negative—the heart muscle can get out of shape from good emotions, too. "There have been case reports of takotsubo at weddings," Merz says. Moreover, one out of three or four takotsubo patients experience no apparent stress, she adds. "So it could be that it's not so much the catecholamine storm itself, but the body's reaction to it—the physiological reaction deeply embedded into out physiology," she explains.
Merz and her team are working to understand what makes people predisposed to takotsubo. They think a person's genetics play a role, but they haven't yet pinpointed genes that seem to be responsible. Genes code for proteins, which affect how the body metabolizes various compounds, which, in turn, affect the body's response to stress. Pinning down the protein involved in takotsubo susceptibility would allow doctors to develop screening tests and identify those prone to severe repeating attacks. It will also help develop medications that can either prevent it or treat it better than just waiting for the body to heal itself.
Researchers at the Imperial College London recently found that elevated levels of certain types of microRNAs—molecules involved in protein production—increase the chances of developing takotsubo.
In one study, researchers tried treating takotsubo in mice with a drug called suberanilohydroxamic acid, or SAHA, typically used for cancer treatment. The drug improved cardiac health and reversed the broken heart in rodents. It remains to be seen if the drug would have a similar effect on humans. But identifying a drug that shows promise is progress, Merz says. "I'm glad that there's research in this area."