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."]
The Friday Five covers five stories in research that you may have missed this week. There are plenty of controversies and troubling ethical issues in science – and we get into many of them in our online magazine – but this news roundup focuses on scientific creativity and progress to give you a therapeutic dose of inspiration headed into the weekend.
Here are the promising studies covered in this week's Friday Five:
- Research on a "smart" bandage for wounds
- A breakthrough in fighting inflammation
- The pros and cons of a new drug for Alzheimer's
- Benefits of the Mediterranean diet - with a twist
- How to recycle a plastic that was un-recyclable
Sexually transmitted infections (STIs) are surging across the U.S. to 2.5 million cases in 2021 according to preliminary data from the CDC. A new prevention and treatment strategy now in clinical trials may provide a way to get a handle on them.
It's easy to overlook the soaring rates of gonorrhea, chlamydia, and syphilis because most of those infections have few or no symptoms and can be identified only through testing. But left untreated, they can lead to serious damage to nerves and tissue, resulting in infertility, blindness, and dementia. Infants developing in utero are particularly vulnerable.
Covid-19 played havoc with regular medical treatment and preventive care for many health problems, including STIs. After formal lockdowns ended, many people gradually became more socially engaged, with increases in sexual activity, and may have prioritized these activities over getting back in touch with their doctors.
A second blow to controlling STIs is that family planning clinics are closing left and right because of the Dobbs decision and legislation in many states that curtailed access to an abortion. Discussion has focused on abortion, but those same clinics also play a vital role in the diagnosis and treatment of STIs.
Routine public health is the neglected stepchild of medicine. It is called upon in times of crisis but as that crisis resolves, funding dries up. Labs have atrophied and personnel have been redirected to Covid, “so access to routine screening for STIs has been decimated,” says Jennifer Mahn, director of sexual and clinical health with the National Coalition of STD Directors.
A preview of what we likely are facing comes from Iowa. In 2017, the state legislature restricted funding to family health clinics in four counties, which closed their doors. A year later the statewide rate of gonorrhea skyrocketed from 83 to 153.7 cases per 100,000 people. “Iowa counties with clinic closures had a significantly larger increase,” according to a study published in JAMA. That scenario likely is playing out in countless other regions where access to sexual health care is shrinking; it will be many months before we have the data to know for sure.
A decades-old antibiotic finds a new purpose
Using drugs to protect against HIV, either as post exposure prophylaxis (PEP) or pre-exposure prophylaxis (PrEP), has proven to be quite successful. Researchers wondered if the same approach might be applied to other STIs. They focused on doxycycline, or doxy for short. One of the most commonly prescribed antibiotics in the U.S., it’s a member of the tetracycline family that has been on the market since 1967. It is so safe that it’s used to treat acne.
Two small studies using doxy suggested that it could work to prevent STIs. A handful of clinical trials by different researchers and funding sources set out to generate the additional evidence needed to prove their hypothesis and change the standard of care.
Senior researcher Victor Omollo, with the Kenya Medical Research Institute, noted, “These are prevention interventions that women can control on their own without having to seek or get consent from another person,” as is the case with condom use.
The first with results is the DoxyPEP study, conducted at two sexual health clinics in San Francisco and Seattle. It drew from a mix of transgender women and men who have sex with men, who had at least one diagnosed STI over the last year. The researchers divided the participants into two groups: one with people who were already HIV-positive and engaged in care, while the other group consisted of people who were on PrEP to prevent infection with HIV. For the active part of the study, a subset of the participants received doxy, and the rest of the participants did not.
The researchers intentionally chose to do the study in a population at the highest risk of having STIs, who were very health oriented, and “who were getting screened every three months or so as part of their PrEP program or their HIV care program,” says Connie Celum, a senior researcher at the University of Washington on the study.
Each member of the active group was given a supply of doxy and asked to take two pills within 72 hours of having sex where a condom was not used. The study was supposed to run for two years but, in May, it stopped halfway through, when a safety monitoring board looked at the data and recommended that it would be unethical to continue depriving the control group of the drug’s benefits.
Celum presented these preliminary results from the DoxyPEP study in July at the International AIDS Conference in Montreal. “We saw about a 56 percent reduction in gonorrhea, about 80 percent reduction in chlamydia and syphilis, so very significant reductions, and this is on a per quarter basis,” she told a later webinar.
In Kenya, another study is following a group of cisgender women who are taking the same two-pill regimen to prevent HIV, and the data from this research should become available in 2023. Senior researcher Victor Omollo, with the Kenya Medical Research Institute, noted that “these are prevention interventions that women can control on their own without having to seek or get consent from another person,” as is the case with condom use, another effective prevention tool.
Antibiotic resistance is a potentially big concern. About 25 percent of gonorrhea strains circulating in the U.S. are resistant to the tetracycline class of drugs, including doxy; rates are higher elsewhere. But resistance often is a matter of degree and can be overcome with a larger or longer dose of the drug, or perhaps with a switch to another drug or a two-drug combination.
Research has shown that an established bacterial infection is more difficult to treat because it is part of a biofilm, which can leave only a small portion or perhaps none of the cell surface exposed to a drug. But a new infection, even one where the bacteria is resistant to a drug, might still be vulnerable to that drug if it's used before the bacterial biofilm can be established. Preliminary data suggests that may be the case with doxyPEP and drug resistant gonorrhea; some but not all new drug resistant infections might be thwarted if they’re treated early enough.
“There are some tradeoffs” to these interventions, Celum says, and people may disagree on the cost of increased resistance balanced against the benefits of treating the STIs and reducing their spread within the community.
Resistance does not seem to be an issue yet for chlamydia and syphilis even though doxy has been a recommended treatment for decades, but a remaining question is whether broader use of doxy will directly worsen antibiotic resistance in gonorrhea, or promote it in other STIs. And how will it affect the gut microbiome?
In addition, Celum notes that we need to understand whether doxy will generate mutations in other bacteria that might contribute to drug resistance for gonorrhea, chlamydia or syphilis. The studies underway aim to provide data to answer these questions.
“There are some tradeoffs” to these interventions, Celum says, and people may disagree on the cost of increased resistance balanced against the benefits of treating the STIs and reducing their spread within the community. That might affect doctors' willingness to prescribe the drug.
Turning research into action
The CDC makes policy recommendations for prevention services such as taking doxy, requiring some and leaving others optional. Celum says the CDC will be reviewing information from her trial at a meeting in December, but probably will wait until that study is published before making recommendations, likely in 2023. The San Francisco Department of Public Health issued its own guidance on October 20th and anecdotally, some doctors around the country are beginning to issue prescriptions for doxy to select patients.
About half of new STIs occur in young people ages 15 to 24, a group that is least likely to regularly see a doctor. And sexual health remains a great taboo for many people who don't want such information on their health record for prying parents, employers or neighbors to find out.
“People will go out of their way and travel extensive distances just to avoid that,” says Mahn, the National Coalition director. “People identify locations where they feel safe, where they feel welcome, where they don't feel judged,” Mahn explains, such as community and family planning clinics. They understand those issues and have fees that vary depending on a person’s ability to pay.
Given that these clinics already are understaffed and underfunded, they will be hard pressed to expand services covering the labor intensive testing and monitoring of a doxyPEP regimen. Sexual health clinics don't even have a separate line item in the federal budget for health. That is something the National Association of STI Directors is pushing for in D.C.
DoxyPEP isn't a panacea, and it isn't for everyone. “We really want to try to reach that population who is most likely going to have an STI in the next year,” says Celum, “Because that's where you are going to have the biggest impact.”