The first successful recipient of a human heart transplant lived 18 days. The first artificial heart recipient lived just over 100.
Their brief post-transplant lives paved the way toward vastly greater successes. Former Vice President Dick Cheney relied on an artificial heart for nearly two years before receiving a human heart transplant. It still beats in his chest more than a decade later.
Organ transplantation recently reached its next phase with David Bennett. He survived for two months after becoming the first recipient of a pig’s heart genetically modified to function in a human body in February. Known as a xenotransplant, the procedure could pave the way for greatly expanding the use of transplanted vital organs to extend human lives.
Clinical trials would have to be held in the U.S. before xenotransplants become widespread; Bennett’s surgery was authorized under a special Food and Drug Administration program that addresses patients with life-threatening medical conditions.
German researchers plan to perform eight pig-to-human heart transplants as part of a clinical trial beginning in 2024. According to an email sent to Leaps.org by three scholars working on the German project, these procedures will focus on one of the reasons David Bennett did not survive longer: A porcine infection from his new heart.
The transplant team will conduct more sensitive testing of the donor organs, “which in all likelihood will be able to detect even low levels of virus in the xenograft,” note the scientists, Katharina Ebner, Jochen Ostheimer and Jochen Sautermeister. They are confident that the risk of infection with a porcine virus in the future will be significantly lower.
Moreover, hearts are not the only genetically modified organs that are being xenotransplanted. A team of surgeons at the University of Alabama at Birmingham successfully transplanted genetically modified pig kidneys into a brain-dead human recipient in September. The kidneys functioned normally for more than three days before the experiment ended. The UAB team is now moving forward with clinical trials focusing on transplanting pig kidneys into human patients.
Some experts believe the momentum for xenotransplantation is building, particularly given the recent successes. “I think there is a strong likelihood this will go mainstream,” says Brendan Parent of NYU Langone Health.
Douglas Anderson, a surgeon who is part of that kidney xenotransplant team, observes that, “organ shortages have been the major issue facing transplantation since its inception” and that xenotransplantation is a potential solution to that quandary. “It can’t be understated the number of people waiting for a kidney on dialysis, which has a significant mortality rate,” he says. According to the advocacy group Donate Life America, more than 100,000 people in the U.S. alone are waiting for a donated organ, and 85 percent of them need a kidney.
Other experts believe the momentum for xenotransplantation is building, particularly given the recent successes. “I think there is a strong likelihood this will go mainstream,” says Brendan Parent, director of transplant ethics and policy at NYU Langone Health, a New York City-based hospital system. Like the UAB team, surgeons at NYU Langone have had success coaxing modified pig kidneys to work in deceased humans.
“There is a genuinely good chance that within a generation, (xenotransplantation) might become very common in reasonably wealthy countries,” says Michael Reiss, professor of science education at University College in London. In addition to his academic position, Reiss sits on the Nuffield Council on Bioethics, a nonprofit that is one of Britain’s most prominent watchdogs regarding medical and scientific issues. Reiss is also an Anglican priest and has studied xenotransplantation from both a scientific and religious point of view.
Moreover, genetic modifications could one day lead to organs being specifically optimized for their recipients. That could ensure issues like donor rejection and the calculated risk of artificially suppressing recipient immune systems become concerns of the past.
Major bioethical, religious concerns
Despite the promise of xenotransplantation, numerous bioethical issues swirl around the procedure. They could be magnified if xenotransplantation evolves from one-off experiments to a routine medical procedure.
One of the biggest is the millennia-long prohibitions Islam and Judaism have had regarding the consumption of pork. Will followers of these religions assume such rules extend to those taboo materials being inserted into a human body?
“Initially, one’s instinctual reaction is that, oh, crumbs! – how are Jews and Muslims going to react to that?” Reiss says. But in a world where science and secularism are accepted on an everyday basis, he notes it is not a significant issue. Reiss points out that valves from pig hearts have been used in human patients for decades without any issues. He adds that both Islam and Judaism waive religious dietary restrictions if a human life is at risk.
“While nobody's saying an individual patient is to be forced to have these, the very high proportion of people who identify as Jews or Muslims when given this option are content with it,” he says.
Concurring with Reiss is Michael Gusamano, professor of health policy at Lehigh University and director of its Center for Ethics. He is currently performing research on the ethics of xenotransplantation for the National Institutes of Health.
“Leaders from all major religions have commented on this and have indicated that this is not inconsistent with religious doctrine,” Gusamano says in written remarks to Leaps.org. “Having said that, it is plausible to believe that some people will assume that this is inconsistent with the teaching of their religion and may object to…receiving a xenotransplant as part of routine medical care.”
A history of clashes
Despite those assurances, science has long clashed with theology. Although Galileo proved the planets revolved around the sun, the Catholic Church found him guilty of heresy and rewarded his discovery with house arrest for the last decade of his life. A revolt occurred in mid-19th century India after native-born soldiers believed the ammunition supplied by their British occupiers had been lubricated with pork and beef tallow. Given they had to use their mouths to tear open ammunition pouches, this violated both the tenets of Islam and Hinduism. And one of the conspiracy theories hatched as a result of COVID-19 was that the vaccines developed to fight the disease were the “mark of the beast” – a sign of impending Armageddon under evangelical Christian theology.
The German xenotransplant research team has encountered such potential concerns when the procedure is regarded through a religious lens. “The pastors in our research suspected that many recipients might feel disgust and revulsion,” they write. “Even beyond these special religious reservations, cultural scripts about pigs as inferior living beings are also generally widespread and effective in the western world, so that here too possible disgust reactions cannot be ruled out.”
The German researchers add that “Jewish and Muslim hospital pastoral workers believe possible considerable problems in this respect, which must be dealt with psychosocially, religiously, and pastorally prior to a possible transplantation in order to strengthen the acceptance of the received organ by the patients and their relatives.”
Parent, the director at NYU Langone, shares a concern that xenotransplantation could move “too fast,” although much of his worry is focused on zoonotic disease transmission – pig viruses jumping into humans as a result of such procedures.
Another ethical issue
Moreover, the way pigs and other animals are raised for transplants could pose future ethical dilemmas.
Reiss notes that pigs raised for medical procedures have to be grown and kept in what are known as a designated pathogen-free facility, or DPF. Such facilities are kept painstakingly antiseptic so as to minimize the risk of zoonotic transmissions. But given pigs are fond of outdoor activities such as wallowing in mud and sleeping on hay, they lead “stunningly boring lives” that they probably do not enjoy, Reiss observes.
Ethical concerns with using pigs may push transplantation medicine into its next logical phase: Growing functional organs for transplant in a laboratory setting.
“There’s no doubt that these research pigs have gotten much better veterinary care, et cetera, (compared to farmed pigs). But it’s not a great life,” Reiss says. “And although it hasn’t so far dominated the discussion, I think as the years go by, rather as we’ve seen with the use of apes and now monkeys in medical research, more and more theologians will get uncomfortable about us just assuming we can do this with…pigs.”
The German research team raises the same concerns, but has taken a fairly sanguine view on the topic. “The impairments of the species-typical behavior will certainly provoke criticism and perhaps also public protest. But the number of animals affected is very small in relation to slaughter cattle,” the German researchers note. “Moreover, the conditions there and also in several animal experiments are far worse.”
Observers say that may push transplantation medicine into its next logical phase: Growing functional organs for transplant in a laboratory setting. Anderson, the UAB transplant surgeon, believes such an accomplishment remains decades away.
But other experts believe there is a moral imperative that xenotransplantation remain a temporary solution. “I think we have a duty to go in that direction,” Parent says. “We have to go that way, with the xenotransplantation process (as) a steppingstone and research path that will be useful for bioengineered organs.”
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.”