Rob Waddell dreaded getting a kidney transplant. He suffers from a genetic condition called polycystic kidney disease that causes the uncontrolled growth of cysts that gradually choke off kidney function. The inherited defect has haunted his family for generations, killing his great grandmother, grandmother, and numerous cousins, aunts and uncles.
But he saw how difficult it was for his mother and sister, who also suffer from this condition, to live with the side effects of the drugs they needed to take to prevent organ rejection, which can cause diabetes, high blood pressure and cancer, and even kidney failure because of their toxicity. Many of his relatives followed the same course, says Waddell: "They were all on dialysis, then a transplant and ended up usually dying from cancers caused by the medications."
When the Louisville native and father of four hit 40, his kidneys barely functioned and the only alternative was either a transplant or the slow death of dialysis. But in 2009, when Waddell heard about an experimental procedure that could eliminate the need for taking antirejection drugs, he jumped at the chance to be their first patient. Devised by scientists at the University of Louisville and Northwestern University, the innovative approach entails mixing stem cells from the live kidney donor with that of the recipient to create a hybrid immune system, known as a chimera, that would trick the immune system and prevent it from attacking the implanted kidney.
The procedure itself was done at Northwestern Memorial Hospital in Chicago, using a live kidney donated by a neighbor of Waddell's, who camped out in Chicago during his recovery. Prior to surgery, Waddell underwent a conditioning treatment that consisted of low dose radiation and chemotherapy to weaken his own immune system and make room for the infusion of stem cells.
"The low intensity chemo and radiation conditioning regimen create just enough space for the donor stem cells to gain a foothold in the bone marrow and the donor's immune system takes over," says Dr. Joseph Levanthal, the transplant surgeon who performed the operation and director of kidney and pancreas transplantation at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine. "That way the recipient develops an immune system that doesn't see the donor organ as foreign."
"As a surgeon, I saw what my patients had to go through—taking 25 pills a day, dying at an early age from heart disease, or having a 35% chance of dying every year on dialysis."
A week later, Waddell had the kidney transplant. The following day, he was infused with a complex cellular cocktail that included blood-forming stem cells derived from his donor's bone marrow mixed what are called tolerance inducing facilitator cells (FCs); these cells help the foreign stem cells get established in the recipient's bone marrow.
Over the course of the following year, he was slowly weaned off of antirejection medications—a precaution in case the procedure didn't work—and remarkably, hasn't needed them since. "I felt better than I had in decades because my kidneys [had been] degrading," recalls Waddell, now 54 and a CPA for a global beverage company. And what's even better is that this new approach offers hope for one of his sons who has also inherited the disorder.
Kidney transplants are the most frequent organ transplants in the world and more than 23,000 of these procedures were done in the United States in 2019, according to the United Network for Organ Sharing. Of this, about 7,000 operations are done annually using live organ donors; the remainder use organs from people who are deceased. Right now, this revolutionary new approach—as well as a similar strategy formulated by Stanford University scientists--is in the final phase of clinical trials. Ultimately, this research may pave the way towards realizing the holy grail of organ transplantation: preventing organ rejection by creating a tolerant state in which the recipient's immune system is compatible with the donor, which would eliminate the need for a lifetime of medications.
"As a surgeon, I saw what my patients had to go through—taking 25 pills a day, dying at an early age from heart disease, or having a 35% chance of dying every year on dialysis," says Dr. Suzanne Ildstad, a transplant surgeon and director of the Institute for Cellular Therapeutics at the University of Louisville, whose discovery of facilitator cells were the basis for this therapeutic platform. Ildstad, who has spent more than two decades searching for a better way, says, "This is something I have worked for my entire life."
The Louisville group uses a combination of chemo and radiation to replace the recipient's immune and blood forming cells with that of the donor. In contrast, the Stanford protocol involves harvesting the donor's blood stem cells and T-cells, which are the foot soldiers of the immune system that fight off infections and would normally orchestrate the rejection of the transplanted organ. Their transplant recipients undergo a milder form of "conditioning" that only radiates discrete parts of the body and selectively targets the recipient's T-cells, creating room for both sets of T-cells, a strategy these researchers believe has a better safety profile and less of a chance of rejection.
"We try to achieve immune tolerance by a true chimerism," says Dr. Samuel Strober, a professor of medicine for immunology and rheumatology at Stanford University and a leader of this research team. "The recipients immune system cells are maintained but mixed in the blood with that of the donor."
Studies suggest both approaches work. In a 2018 clinical trial conducted by Talaris Therapeutics, a Louisville-based biotech founded by Ildstad, 26 of 37 (70%) of the live donor kidney transplant recipients no longer need immunosuppressants. Last fall, Talaris began the final phase of clinical tests that will eventually encompass more than 120 such patients.
The Stanford group's cell-based immunotherapy, which is called MDR-101 and is sponsored by the South San Francisco biotech, Medeor Therapeutics, has had similar results in patients who received organs from live donors who were either well matched, such as one from siblings, meaning they were immunologically identical, or partially matched; Talaris uses unrelated donors where there is only a partial match.
In their 2020 clinical trial of 51 patients, 29 were fully matched and 22 were a partial match; 22 of the fully matched recipients didn't need antirejection drugs and ten of the partial matches were able to stop taking some of these medications without rejection. "With our fully matched, roughly 80% have been completely off drugs up to 14 years later," says Strober, "and reducing the number of drugs from three to one [in the partial matches] means you have far fewer side effects. The goal is to get them off of all drugs."
But these protocols are limited to a small number of patients—living donor kidney recipients. As a consequence, both teams are experimenting with ways to broaden their approach so they can use cadaver organs from deceased donors, with human tests planned in the coming year. Here's how that would work: after the other organs are removed from a deceased donor, stem cells are harvested from the donor's vertebrae in the spinal column and then frozen for storage.
"We do the transplant and give the patient a chance to recover and maintain them on drugs," says Ildstad. "Then we do the tolerance conditioning at a later stage."
If this strategy is successful, it would be a genuine game changer, and open the door to using these protocols for transplanting other cadaver organs, including the heart, lungs and liver. While the overall procedure is complex and costly, in the long run it's less expensive than repeated transplant surgeries, the cost of medications and hospitalizations for complications caused by the drugs, or thrice weekly dialysis treatments, says Ildstad.
And she adds, you can't put a price tag on the vast improvement in quality of life.
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."