I am a stem cell scientist. In my day job I work on developing ways to use stem cells to treat neurological disease – human disease. This is the story about how I became part of a group dedicated to rescuing the northern white rhinoceros from extinction.
The earth is now in an era that is called the "sixth mass extinction." The first extinction, 400 million years ago, put an end to 86 percent of the existing species, including most of the trilobites. When the earth grew hotter, dustier, or darker, it lost fish, amphibians, reptiles, plants, dinosaurs, mammals and birds. Each extinction event wiped out 80 to 90 percent of the life on the planet at the time. The first 5 mass extinctions were caused by natural disasters: volcanoes, fires, a meteor. But humans can take credit for the 6th.
Because of human activities that destroy habitats, creatures are now becoming extinct at a rate that is higher than any previously experienced. Some animals, like the giant panda and the California condor, have been pulled back from the brink of extinction by conserving their habitats, breeding in captivity, and educating the public about their plight.
But not the northern white rhino. This gentle giant is a vegetarian that can weigh up to 5,000 pounds. The rhino's weakness is its horn, which has become a valuable commodity because of the mistaken idea that it grants power and has medicinal value. Horns are not medicine; the horns are made of keratin, the same protein that is in fingernails. But as recently as 2017 more than 1,000 rhinos were slaughtered each year to harvest their horns.
All 6 rhino species are endangered. But the northern white has been devastated. Only two members of this species are alive now: Najin, age 32, and her daughter Fatu, 21, live in a protected park in Kenya. They are social animals and would prefer the company of other rhinos of their kind; but they can't know that they are the last two survivors of their entire species. No males exist anymore. The last male, Sudan, died in 2018 at age 45.
We are celebrating a huge milestone in the efforts to use stem cells to rescue the rhino.
I became involved in the rhino rescue project on a sunny day in February, 2008 at the San Diego Wild Animal Park in Escondido, about 30 miles north of my lab in La Jolla. My lab had relocated a couple of months earlier to Scripps Research Institute to start the Center for Regenerative Medicine for human stem cell research. To thank my staff for their hard work, I wanted to arrange a special treat. I contacted my friend Oliver Ryder, who is director of the Institute for Conservation Research at the zoo, to see if I could take them on a safari, a tour in a truck through the savanna habitat at the park.
This was the first of the "stem cell safaris" that the lab would enjoy over the next few years. On the safari we saw elands and cape buffalo, and fed giraffes and rhinos. And we talked about stem cells; in particular, we discussed a surprising technological breakthrough recently reported by the Japanese scientist Shinya Yamanaka that enabled conversion of ordinary skin cells into pluripotent stem cells.
Pluripotent stem cells can develop into virtually any cell type in the body. They exist when we are very young embryos; five days after we were just fertilized eggs, we became blastocysts, invisible tiny balls of a few hundred cells packed with the power to develop into an entire human being. Long before we are born, these cells of vast potential transform into highly specialized cells that generate our brains, our hearts, and everything else.
Human pluripotent stem cells from blastocysts can be cultured in the lab, and are called embryonic stem cells. But thanks to Dr. Yamanaka, anyone can have their skin cells reprogrammed into pluripotent stem cells, just like the ones we had when we were embryos. Dr. Yamanaka won the Nobel Prize for these cells, called "induced pluripotent stem cells" (iPSCs) several years later.
On our safari we realized that if we could make these reprogrammed stem cells from human skin cells, why couldn't we make them from animals' cells? How about endangered animals? Could such stem cells be made from animals whose skin cells had been being preserved since the 1970s in the San Diego Zoo's Frozen Zoo®? Our safari leader, Oliver Ryder, was the curator of the Frozen Zoo and knew what animal cells were stored in its giant liquid nitrogen tanks at −196°C (-320° F). The Frozen Zoo was established by Dr. Kurt Benirschke in 1975 in the hope that someday the collection would aid in rescue of animals that were on the brink of extinction. The frozen collection reached 10,000 cell lines this year.
We returned to the lab after the safari, and I asked my scientists if any of them would like to take on the challenge of making reprogrammed stem cells from endangered species. My new postdoctoral fellow, Inbar Friedrich Ben-Nun, raised her hand. Inbar had arrived only a few weeks earlier from Israel, and she was excited about doing something that had never been done before. Oliver picked the animals we would use. He chose his favorite animal, the critically endangered northern white rhinoceros, and the drill, which is an endangered primate related to the mandrill monkey,
When Inbar started work on reprogramming cells from the Frozen Zoo, there were 8 living northern rhinoceros around the world: Nola, Angalifu, Nesari, Nabire, Suni, Sudan, Najin, and Fatu. We chose to reprogram Fatu, the youngest of the remaining animals.
Through sheer determination and trial and error, Inbar got the reprogramming technique to work, and in 2011 we published the first report of iPSCs from endangered species in the scientific journal Nature Methods. The cover of the journal featured a drawing of an ark packed with animals that might someday be rescued through iPSC technology. By 2011, one of the 8 rhinos, Nesari, had died.
This kernel of hope for using iPSCs to rescue rhinos grew over the next 10 years. The zoo built the Rhino Rescue Center, and brought in 6 females of the closely related species, the southern white rhinoceros, from Africa. Southern white rhino populations are on the rise, and it appears that this species will survive, at least in captivity. The females are destined to be surrogate mothers for embryos made from northern white rhino cells, when eventually we hope to generate sperm and eggs from the reprogrammed stem cells, and fertilize the eggs in vitro, much the same as human IVF.
The author, Jeanne Loring, at the Rhino Rescue Center with one of the southern white rhino surrogates.
As this project has progressed, we've been saddened by the loss of all but the last two remaining members of the species. Nola, the last northern white rhino in the U.S., who was at the San Diego Zoo, died in 2015.
But we are celebrating a huge milestone in the efforts to use stem cells to rescue the rhino. Just over a month ago, we reported that by reprogramming cells preserved in the Frozen Zoo, we produced iPSCs from stored cells of 9 northern white rhinos: Fatu, Najin, Nola, Suni, Nadi, Dinka, Nasima, Saut, and Angalifu. We also reprogrammed cells from two of the southern white females, Amani and Wallis.
We don't know when it will be possible to make a northern white rhino embryo; we have to figure out how to use methods already developed for laboratory mice to generate sperm and eggs from these cells. The male rhino Angalifu died in 2014, but ever since I saw beating heart cells derived from his very own cells in a culture dish, I've felt hope that he will one day have children who will seed a thriving new herd of northern white rhinos.
This article is part of the magazine, "The Future of Science In America: The Election Issue," co-published by LeapsMag, the Aspen Institute Science & Society Program, and GOOD.
In the last 12 years, I have earned degrees from Harvard College and Duke University and trained in an M.D.-Ph.D. program at the University of Pennsylvania. Through this process, I have assembled much educational privilege and can now speak with the authority that is conferred in these ivory towers. Along the way, as a Black, genderqueer, first-generation, low-income trainee, the systems of oppression that permeate American society—racism, transphobia, and classism, among others—coalesced in the microcosm of academia into a unique set of challenges that I had to navigate. I would like to share some of the lessons I have learned over the years in the format of advice for both Black, Indigenous, and other People of Color (BIPOC) and LGBTQ+ trainees as well as members of the education institutions that seek to serve them.
To BIPOC and LGBTQ+ Trainees: Who you are is an asset, not an obstacle. Throughout my undergraduate years, I viewed my background as something to overcome. I had to overcome the instances of implicit bias and overt discrimination I experienced in my classes and among my peers. I had to overcome the preconceived, racialized, limitations on my abilities that academic advisors projected onto me as they characterized my course load as too ambitious or declared me unfit for medical school. I had to overcome the lack of social capital that comes with being from a low-resourced rural community and learn all the idiosyncrasies of academia from how to write professional emails to how and when to solicit feedback. I viewed my Blackness, queerness, and transness as inconveniences of identity that made my life harder.
It was only as I went on to graduate and medical school that I saw how much strength comes from who I am. My perspective allows me to conduct insightful, high-impact, and creative research that speaks to uplifting my various intersecting communities. My work on health equity for transgender people of color (TPOC) and BIPOC trainees in medicine is my form of advocacy. My publications are love letters to my communities, telling them that I see them and that I am with them. They are also indictments of the systems that oppress them and evidence that supports policy innovations and help move our society toward a more equitable future.
To Educators and Institutions: Allyship is active and uncomfortable. In the last 20 years, institutions have professed interest in diversifying their members and supporting marginalized groups. However, despite these proclamations, most have fallen short of truly allying themselves to communities in need of support. People often assume that allyship is defined by intent; that they are allies to Black people in the #BLM era because they, too, believe that Black lives have value. This is decency, not allyship. In the wake of the tragic killings of Breonna Taylor and George Floyd, and the ongoing racial inequity of the COVID-19 pandemic, every person of color that I know in academia has been invited to a townhall on racism. These meetings risk re-traumatizing Black people if they feel coerced into sharing their experiences with racism in front of their white colleagues. This is exploitation, not allyship. These discussions must be carefully designed to prioritize Black voices but not depend on them. They must rely on shared responsibility for strategizing systemic change that centers the needs of Black and marginalized voices while diffusing the requisite labor across the entire institution.
Allyship requires a commitment to actions, not ideas. In education this is fostering safe environments for BIPOC and LGBTQ+ students. It is changing the culture of your institution such that anti-racism is a shared value and that work to establish anti-racist practices is distributed across all groups rather than just an additional tax on minority students and faculty. It is providing dedicated spaces for BIPOC and LGBTQ+ students where they can build community amongst themselves away from the gaze of majority white, heterosexual, and cisgender groups that dominate other spaces. It is also building the infrastructure to educate all members of your institution on issues facing BIPOC and LGBTQ+ students rather than relying on members of those communities to educate others through divulging their personal experiences.
Among well-intentioned ally hopefuls, anxiety can be a major barrier to action. Anxiety around the possibility of making a mistake, saying the wrong thing, hurting or offending someone, and having uncomfortable conversations. I'm here to alleviate any uncertainty around that: You will likely make mistakes, you may receive backlash, you will undoubtedly have uncomfortable conversations, and you may have to apologize. Steel yourself to that possibility and view it as an asset. People give their most unfiltered feedback when they have been hurt, so take that as an opportunity to guide change within your organizations and your own practices. How you respond to criticism will determine your allyship status. People are more likely to forgive when a commitment to change is quickly and repeatedly demonstrated.
The first step to moving forward in an anti-racist framework is to compensate the students for their labor in making the institution more inclusive.
To BIPOC and LGBTQ+ Trainees: Your labor is worth compensation and recognition. It is difficult to see your institution failing to adequately support members of your community without feeling compelled to act. As a Black person in medicine I have served on nearly every committee related to diversity recruitment and admissions. As a queer person I have sat on many taskforces dedicated to improving trans education in medical curricula. I have spent countless hours improving the institutions at which I have been educated and will likely spend countless more. However, over the past few years, I have realized that those hours do not generally advance my academic and professional goals. My peers who do not share in my marginalized identities do not have the external pressure to sequester large parts of their time for institutional change. While I was drafting emails to administrators or preparing journal clubs to educate students on trans health, my peers were studying.
There were periods in my education where there were appreciable declines in my grades and research productivity because of the time I spent on institutional reform. Without care, this phenomenon can translate to a perceived achievement gap. It is not that BIPOC and LGBTQ+ achieve less; in fact, in many ways we achieve more. However, we expend much of our effort on activities that are not traditionally valued as accomplishments for career advancement. The only way to change this norm is to start demanding compensation for your labor and respectfully declining if it is not provided. Compensation can be monetary, but it can also be opportunities for professional identity formation. For uncompensated work that I feel particularly compelled to do, I strategize how it can benefit me before starting the project. Can I write it up for publication in a peer-reviewed scientific journal? Can I find an advisor to support the task force and write a letter of reference on my behalf? Can I use the project to apply for external research funding or scholarships? These are all ways of translating the work that matters to you into the currency that the medical establishment values as productivity.
To Educators and Institutions: Compensate marginalized members of your organizations for making it better. Racism is the oldest institution in America. It is built into the foundation of the country and rests in the very top office in our nation's capital. Analogues of racism, specifically gender-based discrimination, transphobia, and classism, have similarly seeped into the fabric of our country and education system. Given their ubiquity, how can we expect to combat these issues cheaply? Today, anti-racism work is in vogue in academia, and institutions have looked to their Black and otherwise marginalized students to provide ways that the institution can improve. We, as students, regularly respond with well-researched, scholarly, actionable lists of specific interventions that are the result of dozens (sometimes hundreds) of hours of unpaid labor. Then, administrators dissect these interventions and scale them back citing budgetary concerns or hiring limitations.
It gives the impression that they view racism as an easy issue to fix, that can be slotted in under an existing line item, rather than the severe problem requiring radical reform that it actually is. The first step to moving forward in an anti-racist framework is to compensate the students for their labor in making the institution more inclusive. Inclusion and equity improve the educational environment for all students, so in the same way one would pay a consultant for an audit that identifies weaknesses in your institution, you should pay your students who are investing countless hours in strategic planning. While financial compensation is usually preferable, institutions can endow specific equity-related student awards, fellowships, and research programs that allow the work that students are already doing to help further their careers. Next, it is important to invest. Add anti-racism and equity interventions as specific items in departmental and institutional budgets so that there is annual reserved capital dedicated to these improvements, part of which can include the aforementioned student compensation.
To BIPOC and LGBTQ+ Trainees: Seek and be mentors. Early in my training, I often lamented the lack of mentors who shared important identities with myself. I initially sought a Black, queer mentor in medicine who could open doors and guide me from undergrad pre-med to university professor. Unfortunately, given the composition of the U.S. academy, this was not a realistic goal. While our white, cisgender, heterosexual colleagues can identify mentors they reflect, we have to operate on a different mentorship model. In my experience, it is more effective to assemble a mentorship network: a group of allies who facilitate your professional and personal development across one or more arenas. For me, as a physician-scholar-advocate, I need professional mentors who support my specific research interests, help me develop as a policy innovator and advocate, and who can guide my overall career trajectory on the short- and long- term time scales.
Rather than expecting one mentor to fulfill all those roles, as well as be Black and queer, I instead seek a set of mentors that can share in these roles, all of whom are informed or educable on the unique needs of Black and queer trainees. When assembling your own mentorship network, remember personal mentors who can help you develop self-care strategies and achieve work-life balance. Also, there is much value in peer mentorship. Some of my best mentors are my contemporaries. Your experiences have allowed you to accumulate knowledge—share that knowledge with each other.
To Educators and Institutions: Hire better mentors. Be better mentors. Poor mentorship is a challenge throughout academia that is amplified for BIPOC and LGBTQ+ trainees. Part of this challenge is due to priorities established in the hiring process. Institutions need to update hiring practices to explicitly evaluate faculty and staff candidates for their ability to be good mentors, particularly to students from marginalized communities. This can be achieved by including diverse groups of students on hiring committees and allowing them to interview candidates and assess how the candidate will support student needs. Also, continually evaluate current faculty and staff based on standardized feedback from students that will allow you to identify and intervene on deficits and continually improve the quality of mentorship at your institution.
The suggestions I provided are about navigating medical education, as it exists now. I hope that incorporating these practices will allow institutions to better serve the BIPOC and LGBTQ+ trainees that help make their communities vibrant. I also hope that my fellow BIPOC and LGBTQ+ trainees can see themselves in this conversation and feel affirmed and equipped in navigating medicine based on the tools I provide here. However, my words are only a tempering measure. True justice in medical education and health will only happen when we overhaul our institutions and dismantle systems of oppression in our society.
[Editor's Note: To read other articles in this special magazine issue, visit the beautifully designed e-reader version.]
[Editor's Note: On June 6, 2017, Anne Shabason, an artist, hospice educator, and mother of two from Bolton, Ontario, a small town about 30 miles outside of Toronto, underwent Deep Brain Stimulation (DBS) to treat her Parkinson's disease. The FDA approved DBS for Parkinson's disease in 2002. Although it's shown to be safe and effective, agreeing to invasive brain surgery is no easy decision, even when you have your family and one of North America's premier neurosurgeons at your side.
Here, with support from Stan, her husband of the past 40 years, Anne talks about her life before Parkinson's, what the disease took away, and what she got back because of DBS. As told to writer Heather R. Johnson.]
I was an artist.
I worked in mixed media, Papier-mâché, and collage, inspired by dreams, birds, mystery. I had gallery shows and participated in studio tours.
Educated in thanatology, I worked in hospice care as a volunteer and education director for Hospice Caledon, an organization that supports people facing life-limiting illness and grief.
I trained volunteers who helped people through their transition.
Parkinson's disease changed all that.
My hands and my head were not coordinating, so it was impossible to do my art.
It started as a twitch in my leg. During a hospice workshop, my right leg started vibrating in a way I hadn't experienced before. I told a friend, "This can't be good."
Over the next year, my right foot vibrated more and more. I could not sleep well. In my dreams people lurked in corners, in dark places, and behind castle doors. I knew they were there and couldn't avoid the ambush. I shrieked and woke everyone in the house.
An anxiety attack—something I had also never experienced before—came next.
During a class I was teaching, my mouth got so dry, I couldn't speak. I stood in front of the class for three or four minutes, unable to continue. I pushed through and finished the class. That's when I realized this was more than jiggling legs.
That's when I went to see a doctor.
My first doctor, when I suggested it might be Parkinson's, didn't believe me. She sent me to a neurologist who told me I had to meditate more and calm myself.
A friend from hospice told me to phone the Toronto Western Hospital Movement Disorders Clinic. In January 2010, I was diagnosed with Parkinson's disease.
The doctor, a fellow, got all my stats and asked a lot of questions. He was so excited he knew what it was, he exclaimed, "You've got Parkinson's!" like it was the best thing ever. I must say, that wasn't the best news, but at least I finally had a diagnosis.
I could choose whether to take medication or not. The doctor said, "If Parkinson's is compromising your lifestyle, you should consider taking levodopa."
"Well I can't run my classes, I can't do my art, so it's compromising me," I said. And my health was going downhill. The shaking—my whole body moved—sleeping was horrible. Two to four hours max a night was usual. I had terrible anxiety and panic attacks and had to quit work.
So I started taking levodopa. It's taken in a four-hour cycle, but the medication didn't last the full time. I developed dyskenisia, a side effect of the medication that made me experience uncontrolled, involuntary movements. I was edgy, irritable, and focused on my watch like a drug addict. I'd lie on the couch, feel crummy and tired, and wait.
The medication cycle restricted where I could go. Fearing the "off" period, I avoided interaction with lifelong friends, which increased my feeling of social isolation. They would come over and cook with me and read to me sometimes, and that was fine, as long as it was during an "on" period.
There was incontinence, constipation, and fatigue.
I lost fine motor skills, like writing. And painting. My hands and my head were not coordinating, so it was impossible to do my art.
It was a terrible time.
The worst symptoms—what pushed me to consider DBS—were the symptoms no one could see. The anxiety and depression were so bad, the sleeplessness, not eating.
I projected a lot of my discomforts onto Stan. I reacted so badly to him. I actually separated from him briefly on two separate occasions and lived in a separate space—a self-imposed isolation. There wasn't anything he could do to help me really except sit back and watch.
I tried alternative therapies—a naturopath, an osteopath, a reflexologist and a Chinese medicine practitioner—but nothing seemed to help.
I felt like I was dying. Certain parts of my life were being taken away from me. I was a perfectionist, and I felt imperfect. It was a horrible feeling, to not be in control of myself.
The DBS Decision
I was familiar with DBS, a procedure that involves a neurosurgeon drilling small holes into your skull and implanting electrical leads deep in your brain to modify neural activity, reducing involuntary movements.
But I was convinced I'd never do it. I was brought up in a family that believed 'doctors make you sick and hospitals kill you.'
I worried the room wouldn't be sterile. Someone's cutting into your brain, you don't know what's going to happen. They're putting things in your body. I didn't want to risk possible infection.
And my doctor said he couldn't promise he would actually do the operation. It might be a fellow, but he'd be in the background in case anything went wrong. I wasn't comfortable with that arrangement.
When filmmakers Taryn Southern and Elena Gaby decided to make a documentary about people whose lives were changed by cutting-edge brain implants--and I agreed to participate—my doctor said he would for sure do the operation. They couldn't risk anything happening on the operating table on camera, so most of my fears went away.
My family supported the decision. My mother had trigeminal neuralgia, which is a very painful facial condition. She also had a stroke and what we now believe to be Parkinson's. My father, a retired dentist, managed her care and didn't give her the opportunity to see a specialist.
I felt them running the knife across my scalp, and drilling two holes in my head, but only as pressure, not pain.
When we were talking about DBS, my son, Joseph, said, "How can you not do this, for the sake of your family? Because if you don't, you'll end up like Grandma, who, for the last few years of her life, just lay on a couch because she didn't get any kind of outside help. If you even have a chance to improve your life or give yourself five extra years, why wouldn't you do that, for our sake? Are we not worth that?"
That talk really affected me, and I realized I had to try. Even though it was difficult, I had to be brave for my family.
Surgery, Recovery, and Tweaking
You have to be awake for part of the procedure—I was awake enough that my subconscious could hear, because they had to know how far to insert the electrodes. DBS targets the troublemaking areas of the brain. There's a one millimeter difference between success and failure.
I felt them running the knife across my scalp, and drilling two holes in my head, but only as pressure, not pain.
Once they were inside, they asked me to move parts of my body to see whether the right neurons were activated.
They put me to sleep to put a battery-powered neurostimulator in my chest. A wire that runs behind my ear and down my neck connects the electrodes in my brain to the battery pack. The neurostimulator creates electric pulses 24 hours a day.
I was moving around almost immediately after surgery. Recovery from the stitches took a few weeks, but everything else took a lot longer.
I couldn't read. My motor skills were still impaired, and my brain and my hands weren't yet linked up. I needed the device to be programmed and tweaked. Until that happened, I needed help.
The depression and anxiety, though, went away almost immediately. From that perspective, it was like I never had Parkinson's. I was so happy.
When they calibrated the electrodes, they adjusted how much electrical current goes to any one of four contact points on the left and right sides of the brain. If they increased it too much, a leg would start shaking, a foot would start cramping, or my tongue would feel thicker. It took a while to get it calibrated correctly to control the symptoms.
First it was five sessions in five weeks, then once a month, then every three months. Now I visit every six months. As the disease progresses, they have the ability to keep making adjustments. (DBS controls the symptoms, but it doesn't cure the disease.)
Once they got the calibration right, my motor skills improved. I could walk without shuffling. My muscles weren't stiff and aching, and the dyskinesia disappeared. But if I turn off the device, my symptoms return almost immediately.
Some days I have more fatigue than others, and sometimes my brain doesn't click. And my voice got softer – that's a common side effect of this operation. But I'm doing so much better than before.
I have a quality of life I didn't have before. Before COVID-19 hit, Stan and I traveled, went to concerts, movies, galleries, and spent time with our growing family.
Anne in her home studio with her art, 2019.
I cut back the levodopa from seven-and-a-half pills a day to two-and-a-half. I often forget to take my medication until I realize I'm feeling tired or anxious.
Best of all, my motivation and creative ability have clicked in.
I am an artist—again.
I'm painting every day. It's what is keeping me sane. It's my saving grace.
I'm not perfect. But I am Anne. Again.