Will religious people reject organ transplants from pigs?
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.”
Swiss researchers have discovered a third type of brain cell that appears to be a hybrid of the two other primary types — and it could lead to new treatments for many brain disorders.
The challenge: Most of the cells in the brain are either neurons or glial cells. While neurons use electrical and chemical signals to send messages to one another across small gaps called synapses, glial cells exist to support and protect neurons.
Astrocytes are a type of glial cell found near synapses. This close proximity to the place where brain signals are sent and received has led researchers to suspect that astrocytes might play an active role in the transmission of information inside the brain — a.k.a. “neurotransmission” — but no one has been able to prove the theory.
A new brain cell: Researchers at the Wyss Center for Bio and Neuroengineering and the University of Lausanne believe they’ve definitively proven that some astrocytes do actively participate in neurotransmission, making them a sort of hybrid of neurons and glial cells.
According to the researchers, this third type of brain cell, which they call a “glutamatergic astrocyte,” could offer a way to treat Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, and other disorders of the nervous system.
“Its discovery opens up immense research prospects,” said study co-director Andrea Volterra.
The study: Neurotransmission starts with a neuron releasing a chemical called a neurotransmitter, so the first thing the researchers did in their study was look at whether astrocytes can release the main neurotransmitter used by neurons: glutamate.
By analyzing astrocytes taken from the brains of mice, they discovered that certain astrocytes in the brain’s hippocampus did include the “molecular machinery” needed to excrete glutamate. They found evidence of the same machinery when they looked at datasets of human glial cells.
Finally, to demonstrate that these hybrid cells are actually playing a role in brain signaling, the researchers suppressed their ability to secrete glutamate in the brains of mice. This caused the rodents to experience memory problems.
“Our next studies will explore the potential protective role of this type of cell against memory impairment in Alzheimer’s disease, as well as its role in other regions and pathologies than those explored here,” said Andrea Volterra, University of Lausanne.
But why? The researchers aren’t sure why the brain needs glutamatergic astrocytes when it already has neurons, but Volterra suspects the hybrid brain cells may help with the distribution of signals — a single astrocyte can be in contact with thousands of synapses.
“Often, we have neuronal information that needs to spread to larger ensembles, and neurons are not very good for the coordination of this,” researcher Ludovic Telley told New Scientist.
Looking ahead: More research is needed to see how the new brain cell functions in people, but the discovery that it plays a role in memory in mice suggests it might be a worthwhile target for Alzheimer’s disease treatments.
The researchers also found evidence during their study that the cell might play a role in brain circuits linked to seizures and voluntary movements, meaning it’s also a new lead in the hunt for better epilepsy and Parkinson’s treatments.
“Our next studies will explore the potential protective role of this type of cell against memory impairment in Alzheimer’s disease, as well as its role in other regions and pathologies than those explored here,” said Volterra.
Martin Taylor was only 32 when he was diagnosed with Parkinson's, a disease that causes tremors, stiff muscles and slow physical movement - symptoms that steadily get worse as time goes on.
“It's horrible having Parkinson's,” says Taylor, a data analyst, now 41. “It limits my ability to be the dad and husband that I want to be in many cruel and debilitating ways.”
Today, more than 10 million people worldwide live with Parkinson's. Most are diagnosed when they're considerably older than Taylor, after age 60. Although recent research has called into question certain aspects of the disease’s origins, Parkinson’s eventually kills the nerve cells in the brain that produce dopamine, a signaling chemical that carries messages around the body to control movement. Many patients have lost 60 to 80 percent of these cells by the time they are diagnosed.
For years, there's been little improvement in the standard treatment. Patients are typically given the drug levodopa, a chemical that's absorbed by the brain’s nerve cells, or neurons, and converted into dopamine. This drug addresses the symptoms but has no impact on the course of the disease as patients continue to lose dopamine producing neurons. Eventually, the treatment stops working effectively.
BlueRock Therapeutics, a cell therapy company based in Massachusetts, is taking a different approach by focusing on the use of stem cells, which can divide into and generate new specialized cells. The company makes the dopamine-producing cells that patients have lost and inserts these cells into patients' brains. “We have a disease with a high unmet need,” says Ahmed Enayetallah, the senior vice president and head of development at BlueRock. “We know [which] cells…are lost to the disease, and we can make them. So it really came together to use stem cells in Parkinson's.”
In a phase 1 research trial announced late last month, patients reported that their symptoms had improved after a year of treatment. Brain scans also showed an increased number of neurons generating dopamine in patients’ brains.
Increases in dopamine signals
The recent phase 1 trial focused on deploying BlueRock’s cell therapy, called bemdaneprocel, to treat 12 patients suffering from Parkinson’s. The team developed the new nerve cells and implanted them into specific locations on each side of the patient's brain through two small holes in the skull made by a neurosurgeon. “We implant cells into the places in the brain where we think they have the potential to reform the neural networks that are lost to Parkinson's disease,” Enayetallah says. The goal is to restore motor function to patients over the long-term.
Five patients were given a relatively low dose of cells while seven got higher doses. Specialized brain scans showed evidence that the transplanted cells had survived, increasing the overall number of dopamine producing cells. The team compared the baseline number of these cells before surgery to the levels one year later. “The scans tell us there is evidence of increased dopamine signals in the part of the brain affected by Parkinson's,” Enayetallah says. “Normally you’d expect the signal to go down in untreated Parkinson’s patients.”
"I think it has a real chance to reverse motor symptoms, essentially replacing a missing part," says Tilo Kunath, a professor of regenerative neurobiology at the University of Edinburgh.
The team also asked patients to use a specific type of home diary to log the times when symptoms were well controlled and when they prevented normal activity. After a year of treatment, patients taking the higher dose reported symptoms were under control for an average of 2.16 hours per day above their baselines. At the smaller dose, these improvements were significantly lower, 0.72 hours per day. The higher-dose patients reported a corresponding decrease in the amount of time when symptoms were uncontrolled, by an average of 1.91 hours, compared to 0.75 hours for the lower dose. The trial was safe, and patients tolerated the year of immunosuppression needed to make sure their bodies could handle the foreign cells.
Claire Bale, the associate director of research at Parkinson's U.K., sees the promise of BlueRock's approach, while noting the need for more research on a possible placebo effect. The trial participants knew they were getting the active treatment, and placebo effects are known to be a potential factor in Parkinson’s research. Even so, “The results indicate that this therapy produces improvements in symptoms for Parkinson's, which is very encouraging,” Bale says.
Tilo Kunath, a professor of regenerative neurobiology at the University of Edinburgh, also finds the results intriguing. “I think it's excellent,” he says. “I think it has a real chance to reverse motor symptoms, essentially replacing a missing part.” However, it could take time for this therapy to become widely available, Kunath says, and patients in the late stages of the disease may not benefit as much. “Data from cell transplantation with fetal tissue in the 1980s and 90s show that cells did not survive well and release dopamine in these [late-stage] patients.”
Searching for the right approach
There's a long history of using cell therapy as a treatment for Parkinson's. About four decades ago, scientists at the University of Lund in Sweden developed a method in which they transferred parts of fetal brain tissue to patients with Parkinson's so that their nerve cells would produce dopamine. Many benefited, and some were able to stop their medication. However, the use of fetal tissue was highly controversial at that time, and the tissues were difficult to obtain. Later trials in the U.S. showed that people benefited only if a significant amount of the tissue was used, and several patients experienced side effects. Eventually, the work lost momentum.
“Like many in the community, I'm aware of the long history of cell therapy,” says Taylor, the patient living with Parkinson's. “They've long had that cure over the horizon.”
In 2000, Lorenz Studer led a team at the Memorial Sloan Kettering Centre, in New York, to find the chemical signals needed to get stem cells to differentiate into cells that release dopamine. Back then, the team managed to make cells that produced some dopamine, but they led to only limited improvements in animals. About a decade later, in 2011, Studer and his team found the specific signals needed to guide embryonic cells to become the right kind of dopamine producing cells. Their experiments in mice, rats and monkeys showed that their implanted cells had a significant impact, restoring lost movement.
Studer then co-founded BlueRock Therapeutics in 2016. Forming the most effective stem cells has been one of the biggest challenges, says Enayetallah, the BlueRock VP. “It's taken a lot of effort and investment to manufacture and make the cells at the right scale under the right conditions.” The team is now using cells that were first isolated in 1998 at the University of Wisconsin, a major advantage because they’re available in a virtually unlimited supply.
Other efforts underway
In the past several years, University of Lund researchers have begun to collaborate with the University of Cambridge on a project to use embryonic stem cells, similar to BlueRock’s approach. They began clinical trials this year.
A company in Japan called Sumitomo is using a different strategy; instead of stem cells from embryos, they’re reprogramming adults' blood or skin cells into induced pluripotent stem cells - meaning they can turn into any cell type - and then directing them into dopamine producing neurons. Although Sumitomo started clinical trials earlier than BlueRock, they haven’t yet revealed any results.
“It's a rapidly evolving field,” says Emma Lane, a pharmacologist at the University of Cardiff who researches clinical interventions for Parkinson’s. “But BlueRock’s trial is the first full phase 1 trial to report such positive findings with stem cell based therapies.” The company’s upcoming phase 2 research will be critical to show how effectively the therapy can improve disease symptoms, she added.
The cure over the horizon
BlueRock will continue to look at data from patients in the phase 1 trial to monitor the treatment’s effects over a two-year period. Meanwhile, the team is planning the phase 2 trial with more participants, including a placebo group.
For patients with Parkinson’s like Martin Taylor, the therapy offers some hope, though Taylor recognizes that more research is needed.
“Like many in the community, I'm aware of the long history of cell therapy,” he says. “They've long had that cure over the horizon.” His expectations are somewhat guarded, he says, but, “it's certainly positive to see…movement in the field again.”
"If we can demonstrate what we’re seeing today in a more robust study, that would be great,” Enayetallah says. “At the end of the day, we want to address that unmet need in a field that's been waiting for a long time.”