Thanks to the remarkable evolution of organ transplantation, it's now possible to replace genitals that don't work properly or have been injured. Surgeons have been transplanting ovarian tissue for more than a decade, and they're now successfully transplanting penises and wombs too.
Rules and regulations aren't keeping up with the rapid rise of genital transplants.
Earlier this year, an American soldier whose genitals were injured by a bomb in Afghanistan received the first-ever transplant of a penis and scrotum at Johns Hopkins Medicine.
Rules and regulations aren't keeping up with the rapid rise of genital transplants, however, and there's no consensus about how society should handle a long list of difficult and delicate questions.
Are these expensive transplants worth the risk when other alternatives exist? Should men, famously obsessed with their penises, be able to ask for a better model simply because they want one? And what happens when transplant technology further muddles the concept of biological parenthood?
"We need to remember that the human body is not a machine with interchangeable parts," says bioethicist Craig M. Klugman of DePaul University. "These are complicated, difficult and potentially dangerous surgeries. And they require deep consideration on a physical, psychological, spiritual, and financial level."
From Extra Testicles to Replacement Penises
Tinkering with human genitalia -- especially the male variety -- is hardly a new phenomenon. A French surgeon created artificial penises for injured soldiers in the 16th century. And a bizarre implant craze swept the U.S. in the 1930s when a quack physician convinced men that, quite literally, the more testicles the merrier – and if the human variety wasn't available, then ones from goats would have to do.
Now we're more sophisticated. Modern genital transplants are designed to do two things: Treat infertility (in women) and restore the appearance and function of genitals (in men).
In women, surgeons have successfully transplanted ovarian tissue from one woman to another since the mid-2000s, when an Alabama woman gave birth after getting a transplant from her identical twin sister. Last year, for the first time in the U.S., a young woman gave birth after getting a uterus transplant from a living donor.
"Where do you draw the line? Is pregnancy a privilege? Is it a right?"
As for men, surgeons in the U.S. and South Africa have successfully transplanted penises from dead men into four men whose genitals were injured by a botched circumcision, penile cancer or a wartime injury. One man reportedly fathered a child after the procedure.
The Johns Hopkins procedure was the first to include a scrotum. Testicles, however, were not transplanted due to ethical concerns. Surgeons have successfully transplanted testicles from man-to-man in the past, but this procedure isn't performed because the testes would produce sperm with the donor's DNA. As a result, the recipient could father a baby who is genetically related to the donor.
Are Transplants Worth the Expense and Risk?
Genital transplants are not simple procedures. They're extremely expensive, with a uterus transplant estimated to cost as much as $250,000. They're dangerous, since patients typically must take powerful drugs to keep their immune systems from rejecting their new organs. And they're not medically necessary. All have alternatives that are much less risky and costly.
Dr. Hiten D. Patel, a urologist at Johns Hopkins University, believes these types of factors make penis transplants unnecessary. As he wrote in a 2018 commentary in the journal European Urology, "What in the world are we doing?"
There are similar questions about female genital transplants, which allow infertile women to become pregnant instead of turning to alternatives like adoption or surrogacy. "This is not a life-saving transplant. A woman can very well live without a uterus," says McGill University's Dr. Jacques Balayla, who studies uterine transplantation. "Where do you draw the line? Is pregnancy a privilege? Is it a right? You don't want to cause harm to an individual unless there's an absolute need for the procedure."
But Johns Hopkins urologist Dr. Arthur L. Burnett II, who served on the surgical team that performed the penis-and-scrotum procedure, says penis transplants can be appropriate when other alternatives – like a "neophallus" created from forearm skin and tissue – aren't feasible.
It's also important to "restore normalcy," he says. "We want someone to be able to have sense of male adequacy and a normal sense of bodily well-being on both physical and psychological levels."
Surgical team members who performed the penis transplant, including W. P. Andrew Lee, director of the department of plastic and reconstructive surgery, center.
As for the anonymous recipient, he's reportedly doing "very well" five months after the transplant. An update on Johns Hopkins' website states that "he has normal urinary functions and is beginning to regain sensation in the transplanted tissues."
When the Organ Donors Do It Live
Some peculiar messages reached Burnett's desk after his institution announced it would begin performing penis transplants. Several men wanted to donate their own organs. But for now, transplanted penises are only coming from dead donors whose next of kin have approved the donation.
Burnett doesn't expect live donors to enter the penis transplant picture. But there are no guidelines or policies to stop surgeons from transplanting a penis from a live donor or, for that matter, a testicle.
Live women have already donated wombs and ovarian tissue, forcing them to face their own risks from transplant surgery. "You're putting the donor at risk because she has to undergo pretty expensive surgery for a procedure that is not technically lifesaving," McGill University's Balayla says.
When it comes to uterus transplants, the risk spreads even beyond donor and recipient. Balayla notes there's a third person in the equation: The fetus. "Immunosuppressant medication may harm the baby, and you're feeding the baby with a [uterine] blood vessel that's not natural, held together by stitches," he says.
It's up to each medical institution that performs the procedures to set its own policies.
Bioethicists are talking about other issues raised by genital transplants: How should operations for transgender people fit in? Should men be able to get penis transplants for purely cosmetic reasons? And then there's the looming question of genetic parenthood.
It's up to each medical institution that performs the procedures to set its own policies.
Let's say a woman gets a transplant of ovarian tissue, a man gets a testicle transplant, and they have a baby the old-fashioned way.* The child would be genetically linked to the donors, not the parents who conceived him or her.
Call this a full-employment act not just for bioethicists but theologians too. "Catholicism is generally against reproductive technologies because it removes God from the nature of the procreative act. This technology, though, could result in conception through the natural act. Would their concern remain?" DePaul University's Klugman asked. "Judaism is concerned with knowing a child's parentage, would a child from transplanted testes be the child of the donor or the recipient? Would an act of coitus with a transplanted penis be adultery?"
Yikes. Maybe it's time for the medical field or the law to step in to determine what genital transplants surgeons can and can't -- or shouldn't -- do.
So far, however, only uterus transplants have guidelines in place. Otherwise, it's up to each medical institution that performs the procedures to set its own policies.
"I don't know if the medical establishment is in the position to do the best job of self-regulation," says Lisa Campo-Engelstein, a bioethicist with Albany Medical College. "Reproductive medicine in this country is a huge for-profit industry. There's a possibility of exploitation if we leave this to for-profit fertility companies."
And, as bioethicist Klugman notes, guidelines "aren't laws, and people can and do violate them with no effect."
He doesn't think laws are the solution to the ethical issues raised by genital transplants either. Still, he says, "we do need a national conversation on these topics to help provide guidance for doctors and patients."
[Correction: The following sentence has been updated: "Let's say a woman gets a transplant of ovarian tissue, a man gets a testicle transplant, and they have a baby the old-fashioned way." The original sentence mistakenly read "uterus transplant" instead of "ovarian tissue."]
Glioblastoma is an aggressive and deadly brain cancer, causing more than 10,000 deaths in the US per year. In the last 30 years there has only been limited improvement in the survival rate despite advances in radiation therapy and chemotherapy. Today the typical survival rate is just 14 months and that extra time is spent suffering from the adverse and often brutal effects of radiation and chemotherapy.
Scientists are trying to design more effective treatments for glioblastoma with fewer side effects. Now, a team at the Department of Neurosurgery at Houston Methodist Hospital has created a magnetic helmet-based treatment called oncomagnetic therapy: a promising non-invasive treatment for shrinking cancerous tumors. In the first patient tried, the device was able to reduce the tumor of a glioblastoma patient by 31%. The researchers caution, however, that much more research is needed to determine its safety and effectiveness.
How It Works
“The whole idea originally came from a conversation I had with General Norman Schwarzkopf, a supposedly brilliant military strategist,” says Dr David Baskin, professor of neurosurgery and leader of the effort at Houston Methodist. “I asked him what is the secret to your success and he said, ‘Energy. Take out the power grid and the enemy can't communicate.’ So I thought about what supplies [energy to] cancer, especially brain cancer.”
Baskin came up with the idea of targeting the mitochondria, which process and produce energy for cancer cells.
This is the most exciting thing in glioblastoma treatment I've seen since I've been a neurosurgeon but it is very preliminary.”
The magnetic helmet creates a powerful oscillating magnetic field. At a set range of frequencies and timings, it disrupts the flow of electrons in the mitochondria of cancer cells. This leads to a release of certain chemicals called ROS (Reactive Oxygen Species). In normal cells, this excess ROS is much lower, and is neutralized by other chemicals called antioxidants.
However, cancer cells already have more ROS: they grow rapidly and uncontrollably so their mitochondria need to produce more energy which in turn generates more ROS. By using the powerful magnetic field, levels of ROS get so high that the malignant cells are torn apart.
The biggest challenge was working out the specific range of frequencies and timing parameters they needed to use to kill cancer cells. It took skill, intuition, luck and lots of experiments. The helmet could theoretically be used to treat all types of glioblastoma.
Developing the magnetic helmet was a collaborative process. Dr Santosh Helekar is a neuroscientist at Houston Methodist Research Institute and the director of oncomagnetics (magnetic cancer therapies) at the Peak Center in Houston Methodist Hospital. His previous invention with colleagues gave the team a starting point to build on. “About 7 years back I developed a portable brain magnetic stimulation device to conduct brain research,” Helekar says. “We [then] conducted a pilot clinical trial in stroke patients. The results were promising.”
Helekar presented his findings to neurosurgeons including Baskin. They decided to collaborate. With a team of scientists behind them, they modified the device to kill cancer cells.
The magnetic helmet studied for treatment of glioblastoma
Dr. David Baskin
After success in the lab, the team got FDA approval to conduct a compassionate trial in a 53-year-old man with end-stage glioblastoma. He had tried every other treatment available. But within 30 days of using the magnetic helmet his tumor shrank by 31%.
Sadly, 36 days into the treatment, the patient had an unrelated head injury due to a fall. The treatment was paused and he later died of the injury. Autopsy results of his brain highlighted the dramatic reduction in tumor cells.
Baskin says, “This is the most exciting thing in glioblastoma treatment I've seen since I've been a neurosurgeon but it is very preliminary.”
The helmet is part of a growing number of non-invasive cancer treatments. One device that is currently being used by glioblastoma patients is Optune. It uses electric fields called tumor treating fields to slow down cell division and has been through a successful phase 3 clinical trial.
The magnetic helmet has the promise to be another useful non-invasive treatment according to Professor Gabriel Zada, a neurosurgeon and director of the USC Brain Tumor Center. “We're learning that various electromagnetic fields and tumor treating fields appear to play a role in glioblastoma. So there is some precedent for this though the tumor treating fields work a little differently. I think there is major potential for it to be effective but of course it will require some trials.”
Professor Jonathan Sherman, a neurosurgeon and director of neuro-oncology at West Virginia University, reiterates the need for further testing. “It sounds interesting but it’s too early to tell what kind of long-term efficacy you get. We do not have enough data. Also if you’re disrupting [the magnetic field] you could negatively impact a patient. You could be affecting the normal conduction of electromagnetic activity in the brain.”
The team is currently extending their research. They are now testing the treatment in two other patients with end-stage glioblastoma. The immediate challenge is getting FDA approval for those at an earlier stage of the disease who are more likely to benefit.
Baskin and the team are designing a clinical trial in the U.S., .U.K. and Germany. After positive results in cell cultures, they’re in negotiations to collaborate with other researchers in using the technology for lung and breast cancer. With breast cancer, the soft tissue is easier to access so a magnetic device could be worn over the breast.
“My hope is to develop a treatment to treat and hopefully cure glioblastoma without radiation or chemotherapy,” Baskin says. “We're onto a strategy that could make a huge difference for patients with this disease and probably for patients with many other forms of cancer.”
Astronauts at the International Space Station today depend on pre-packaged, freeze-dried food, plus some fresh produce thanks to regular resupply missions. This supply chain, however, will not be available on trips further out, such as the moon or Mars. So what are astronauts on long missions going to eat?
Going by the options available now, says Christel Paille, an engineer at the European Space Agency, a lunar expedition is likely to have only dehydrated foods. “So no more fresh product, and a limited amount of already hydrated product in cans.”
For the Mars mission, the situation is a bit more complex, she says. Prepackaged food could still constitute most of their food, “but combined with [on site] production of certain food products…to get them fresh.” A Mars mission isn’t right around the corner, but scientists are currently working on solutions for how to feed those astronauts. A number of boundary-pushing efforts are now underway.
The logistics of growing plants in space, of course, are very different from Earth. There is no gravity, sunlight, or atmosphere. High levels of ionizing radiation stunt plant growth. Plus, plants take up a lot of space, something that is, ironically, at a premium up there. These and special nutritional requirements of spacefarers have given scientists some specific and challenging problems.
To study fresh food production systems, NASA runs the Vegetable Production System (Veggie) on the ISS. Deployed in 2014, Veggie has been growing salad-type plants on “plant pillows” filled with growth media, including a special clay and controlled-release fertilizer, and a passive wicking watering system. They have had some success growing leafy greens and even flowers.
"Ideally, we would like a system which has zero waste and, therefore, needs zero input, zero additional resources."
A larger farming facility run by NASA on the ISS is the Advanced Plant Habitat to study how plants grow in space. This fully-automated, closed-loop system has an environmentally controlled growth chamber and is equipped with sensors that relay real-time information about temperature, oxygen content, and moisture levels back to the ground team at Kennedy Space Center in Florida. In December 2020, the ISS crew feasted on radishes grown in the APH.
“But salad doesn’t give you any calories,” says Erik Seedhouse, a researcher at the Applied Aviation Sciences Department at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in Florida. “It gives you some minerals, but it doesn’t give you a lot of carbohydrates.” Seedhouse also noted in his 2020 book Life Support Systems for Humans in Space: “Integrating the growing of plants into a life support system is a fiendishly difficult enterprise.” As a case point, he referred to the ESA’s Micro-Ecological Life Support System Alternative (MELiSSA) program that has been running since 1989 to integrate growing of plants in a closed life support system such as a spacecraft.
Paille, one of the scientists running MELiSSA, says that the system aims to recycle the metabolic waste produced by crew members back into the metabolic resources required by them: “The aim is…to come [up with] a closed, sustainable system which does not [need] any logistics resupply.” MELiSSA uses microorganisms to process human excretions in order to harvest carbon dioxide and nitrate to grow plants. “Ideally, we would like a system which has zero waste and, therefore, needs zero input, zero additional resources,” Paille adds.
Microorganisms play a big role as “fuel” in food production in extreme places, including in space. Last year, researchers discovered Methylobacterium strains on the ISS, including some never-seen-before species. Kasthuri Venkateswaran of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, one of the researchers involved in the study, says, “[The] isolation of novel microbes that help to promote the plant growth under stressful conditions is very essential… Certain bacteria can decompose complex matter into a simple nutrient [that] the plants can absorb.” These microbes, which have already adapted to space conditions—such as the absence of gravity and increased radiation—boost various plant growth processes and help withstand the harsh physical environment.
MELiSSA, says Paille, has demonstrated that it is possible to grow plants in space. “This is important information because…we didn’t know whether the space environment was affecting the biological cycle of the plant…[and of] cyanobacteria.” With the scientific and engineering aspects of a closed, self-sustaining life support system becoming clearer, she says, the next stage is to find out if it works in space. They plan to run tests recycling human urine into useful components, including those that promote plant growth.
The MELiSSA pilot plant uses rats currently, and needs to be translated for human subjects for further studies. “Demonstrating the process and well-being of a rat in terms of providing water, sufficient oxygen, and recycling sufficient carbon dioxide, in a non-stressful manner, is one thing,” Paille says, “but then, having a human in the loop [means] you also need to integrate user interfaces from the operational point of view.”
Growing food in space comes with an additional caveat that underscores its high stakes. Barbara Demmig-Adams from the Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology at the University of Colorado Boulder explains, “There are conditions that actually will hurt your health more than just living here on earth. And so the need for nutritious food and micronutrients is even greater for an astronaut than for [you and] me.”
Demmig-Adams, who has worked on increasing the nutritional quality of plants for long-duration spaceflight missions, also adds that there is no need to reinvent the wheel. Her work has focused on duckweed, a rather unappealingly named aquatic plant. “It is 100 percent edible, grows very fast, it’s very small, and like some other floating aquatic plants, also produces a lot of protein,” she says. “And here on Earth, studies have shown that the amount of protein you get from the same area of these floating aquatic plants is 20 times higher compared to soybeans.”
Aquatic plants also tend to grow well in microgravity: “Plants that float on water, they don’t respond to gravity, they just hug the water film… They don’t need to know what’s up and what’s down.” On top of that, she adds, “They also produce higher concentrations of really important micronutrients, antioxidants that humans need, especially under space radiation.” In fact, duckweed, when subjected to high amounts of radiation, makes nutrients called carotenoids that are crucial for fighting radiation damage. “We’ve looked at dozens and dozens of plants, and the duckweed makes more of this radiation fighter…than anything I’ve seen before.”
Despite all the scientific advances and promising leads, no one really knows what the conditions so far out in space will be and what new challenges they will bring. As Paille says, “There are known unknowns and unknown unknowns.”
One definite “known” for astronauts is that growing their food is the ideal scenario for space travel in the long term since “[taking] all your food along with you, for best part of two years, that’s a lot of space and a lot of weight,” as Seedhouse says. That said, once they land on Mars, they’d have to think about what to eat all over again. “Then you probably want to start building a greenhouse and growing food there [as well],” he adds.
And that is a whole different challenge altogether.