Dr. Conville Brown, a cardiologist-researcher in The Bahamas, is at the helm of a fascinating worldwide project: He's leading a movement to help accelerate innovation by providing scientists and patients from around the globe with a legal, cost-effective, and ethically rigorous place to conduct medical research, as well as to offer commercial therapies that are already approved in some jurisdictions, but not others. He recently spoke with Editor-In-Chief Kira Peikoff about The Bahamas' emerging ascendance in the scientific world. This interview has been edited and condensed for brevity.
"You don't want to take shortcuts from the perspective of not giving proper due diligence to the process, but you also don't want it to be overwhelmed with red tape."
Tell me about the work you do in the Bahamas – what is the research focus?
We have a couple research opportunities here. Several years ago, we established the Partners Clinical Research Centre, the idea being that we can partner with different people in different territories in the world, including the United States, and be able to perform ethical research as would be defined and adjudicated by an institutional review board and a properly constituted ethics committee. We do all of this with FDA rigor, but in a non-FDA jurisdiction.
By doing this, we want to look for the science behind the research, and want to know that there is a sound clinical hypothesis that's going to be tested. We also want to know that the safety of the human subjects is assured as much as possible, and of course, assess the efficacy of that which you're testing. We want to do this in the same manner as the FDA, except in a more accelerated and probably less bureaucratic manner. You don't want to take shortcuts from the perspective of not giving proper due diligence to the process, but you also don't want it to be overwhelmed with red tape, so that what could be 3 months takes 3 years. A jet ski turns around a lot faster than the Queen Mary.
Why do you think the clinical research process in other countries like the U.S. has become burdened with red tape?
The litigious nature of society is a contributing factor. If people are negligent, they deserve to be sued. Unfortunately, all too often, some things get taken too far, and sometimes, the pendulum swings too far in the wrong direction and then it's counterproductive, so the whole process then becomes so very heavily regulated and financially burdensome. A lot of American companies have gone outside the country to get their clinical trials and/or device testing done because it's too phenomenally expensive and time-consuming. We seek to make sure the same degree of diligence is exercised but in a lesser time frame, and of course, at a much lower cost.
The other aspect, of course, is that there are certain opportunities where we have major jurisdictions, as in Europe, that have determined that a therapy or device is safe. Those services and devices we can utilize in the Bahamas--not as a clinical research tool, but as a therapy, which of course, the United States is not able to do without FDA approval. That could easily take another five years. So there is an opportunity for us in that window to make available such therapies and devices to the North American community. I like to call this "Advanced Medical Tourism" or "Advanced TransNational Medical Care." Instead of somebody flying nine hours to Europe, they can also now fly to the Bahamas, as little as half an hour away, and as long as we are satisfied that the science is sound and the approvals are in place from a senior jurisdiction, then we can legally serve any patient that is eligible for that particular therapy.
Dr. Conville Brown
Are you seeing an influx of patients for that kind of medical tourism?
The numbers are increasing. The stem cell legislation has now been in place for two to three years, so we have a number of entities including some large international companies coming to the shores of the Bahamas to provide some therapies here, and others for research. The vast majority of our clientele are from abroad, particularly the U.S. We fully plan to increase the traffic flow to the Bahamas for medical tourism, or preferably, TransNational Medical Care, Advanced and Conventional.
How do patients find out about available therapies and trials happening there?
Advertising in the international arena for something that is perfectly legal within the confines of Bahamas is par for the course. But the marketing efforts have not been that heavy while all the processes and procedures are being fine-tuned and the various entities are set up to handle more than 100 people at a time.
"We were able to accelerate those programs, and do it a lot less expensively than can be done in continental countries, but just as well."
What kind of research is being done by companies who have come to the Bahamas?
We've been involved in first-in-man procedures for neuromodulation of the cardiovascular system, where we inserted a device into the blood vessels and stimulated the autonomic nervous system with a view to controlling patients' blood pressure and heart rate in conditions such as congestive heart failure. We have also looked at injectable glucose sensors, to continually monitor the blood glucose, and via a chip, can send the blood glucose measurement back to the patient's cell phone. So the patient looks at his phone for his blood sugar. That was phenomenally exciting, the clinical trial was very positive, and the company is now developing a final prototype to commercialize the product. We were able to accelerate those programs, and do it a lot less expensively than can be done in continental countries, but just as well. The Bahamas has also crafted legislation specifically for regenerative medicine and stem cell research, so that becomes an additional major attraction.
Do you ever find that there is skepticism around going to the Caribbean to do science?
When it comes to clinical research and new medical devices, one might be skeptical about the level of medical/scientific expertise that is resident here. We're here to show that we do in fact have that expertise resident within The Partners Clinical Research Centre, within The Partners Stem Cell Centre, and we have formed our partnerships accordingly so that when prudent and necessary, we bring in additional expertise from the very territories that are seeking to accelerate.
Have you seen a trend toward increasing interest from researchers around the world?
Absolutely. One company, for example, is interested not only in the clinical side, but also the preclinical side--where you can have animal lab experiments done in the Bahamas, and being able to bridge that more readily with the clinical side. That presents a major opportunity for parties involved because again, the financial savings are exponential without compromising standards.
"A person who is 75 and frail, he doesn't want to wait to see if he will make it to 80 to benefit from the agent if it's approved in five years. Instead he can come to our center."
Where are some of these researchers from?
The United States, the Czech Republic, Russia, Canada, and South America. I expect significantly more interest once we promote the idea of European products having a welcome niche in the Bahamas, because we accept federal approvals from the U.S., Canada, and the European Union.
What do you think will be the first medical breakthrough to come out of research there?
One of the biggest killers in the world is heart disease, and we have the opportunity to implement a number of cardiac protocols utilizing stem cell therapy, particularly for those with no options. We just completed a state-of-the art medical center that we fashioned after the University of Miami that is getting ready for prime time. The sky will be the limit for the cardiac patient with respect to stem cell medicine.
Second, we are extremely pleased to be involved with a company called Longeveron, which is looking at how one might age better, and age more slowly, particularly with the administration of young blood and mesenchymal stem cells to frail, elderly candidates. Healthy young men have their mesenchymal stem cells harvested, expanded, and then administered to frail, elderly individuals with a view to improving their Frailty Index and functionality (feeling younger). There is a lot of interest in this arena, as one could imagine.
And herein lies the classical scenario for the Bahamas: Longeveron is now recruiting patients for its phase IIB double blind, placebo-controlled clinical trial at multiple sites across the U.S., which will add some two to three years to its data collection. Originally this work was done with NIH support at the University of Miami's Interdisciplinary Stem Cell Institute by Dr. Joshua Hare, and published in the Journal of Gerontology. So now, during the ongoing and expanded clinical trial, with those positive signals, we are able to have a commercially available clinical registry in the Bahamas. This has been approved by the ethics committee here, which is comprised of international luminaries in regenerative medicine. Longeveron will also be conducting an additional randomized clinical trial arm of same at our Centre in The Bahamas, The Partners Stem Cell Centre.
Can you clarify what you mean by "registry"?
In other words, you still have to fit the eligibility criteria to receive the active agent, but the difference is that in a placebo-controlled double-blind clinical trial, the physician/researcher and the patient don't know if they are getting the active agent or placebo. In the registry, there is no placebo, and you know you're getting the active agent, what we call "open label." You're participating because of the previous information on efficacy and safety.
A person who is 75 and frail, he doesn't want to wait to see if he will make it to 80 to benefit from the agent if it's approved in five years. Instead he can come to our center, one of the designated centers, and as long as he meets the inclusion criteria, may participate in said registry. The additional data from our patients can bolster the numbers in the clinical trial, which can contribute to the FDA approval process. One can see how this could accelerate the process of discovery and acceptance, as well as prove if the agent was not as good as it was made out to be. It goes both ways.
"We would love to be known as a place that facilitates the acceleration of ethical science and ethical therapies, and therefore brings global relief to those in need."
Do you think one day the Bahamas will be more well-known for its science than its beaches?
I doubt that. What I would like to say is that the Bahamas would love to always be known for its beautiful beaches, but we would also like to be known for diversity and innovation. Apart from all that beauty, we can still play a welcoming role to the rest of the scientific world. We would love to be known as a place that facilitates the acceleration of ethical science and ethical therapies, and therefore brings global relief to those in need.
In December 1958, on a vacation with his wife in Kenya, a 28-year-old British tea broker named Robin Cavendish became suddenly ill. Neither he nor his wife Diana knew it at the time, but Robin's illness would change the course of medical history forever.
Robin was rushed to a nearby hospital in Kenya where the medical staff delivered the crushing news: Robin had contracted polio, and the paralysis creeping up his body was almost certainly permanent. The doctors placed Robin on a ventilator through a tracheotomy in his neck, as the paralysis from his polio infection had rendered him unable to breathe on his own – and going off the average life expectancy at the time, they gave him only three months to live. Robin and Diana (who was pregnant at the time with their first child, Jonathan) flew back to England so he could be admitted to a hospital. They mentally prepared to wait out Robin's final days.
But Robin did something unexpected when he returned to the UK – just one of many things that would astonish doctors over the next several years: He survived. Diana gave birth to Jonathan in February 1959 and continued to visit Robin regularly in the hospital with the baby. Despite doctors warning that he would soon succumb to his illness, Robin kept living.
After a year in the hospital, Diana suggested something radical: She wanted Robin to leave the hospital and live at home in South Oxfordshire for as long as he possibly could, with her as his nurse. At the time, this suggestion was unheard of. People like Robin who depended on machinery to keep them breathing had only ever lived inside hospital walls, as the prevailing belief was that the machinery needed to keep them alive was too complicated for laypeople to operate. But Diana and Robin were up for the challenges – and the risks. Because his ventilator ran on electricity, if the house were to unexpectedly lose power, Diana would either need to restore power quickly or hand-pump air into his lungs to keep him alive.
Robin's wheelchair was not only the first of its kind; it became the model for the respiratory wheelchairs that people still use today.
In an interview as an adult, Jonathan Cavendish reflected on his parents' decision to live outside the hospital on a ventilator: "My father's mantra was quality of life," he explained. "He could have stayed in the hospital, but he didn't think that was as good of a life as he could manage. He would rather be two minutes away from death and living a full life."
After a few years of living at home, however, Robin became tired of being confined to his bed. He longed to sit outside, to visit friends, to travel – but had no way of doing so without his ventilator. So together with his friend Teddy Hall, a professor and engineer at Oxford University, the two collaborated in 1962 to create an entirely new invention: a battery-operated wheelchair prototype with a ventilator built in. With this, Robin could now venture outside the house – and soon the Cavendish family became famous for taking vacations. It was something that, by all accounts, had never been done before by someone who was ventilator-dependent. Robin and Hall also designed a van so that the wheelchair could be plugged in and powered during travel. Jonathan Cavendish later recalled a particular family vacation that nearly ended in disaster when the van broke down outside of Barcelona, Spain:
"My poor old uncle [plugged] my father's chair into the wrong socket," Cavendish later recalled, causing the electricity to short. "There was fire and smoke, and both the van and the chair ground to a halt." Johnathan, who was eight or nine at the time, his mother, and his uncle took turns hand-pumping Robin's ventilator by the roadside for the next thirty-six hours, waiting for Professor Hall to arrive in town and repair the van. Rather than being panicked, the Cavendishes managed to turn the vigil into a party. Townspeople came to greet them, bringing food and music, and a local priest even stopped by to give his blessing.
Robin had become a pioneer, showing the world that a person with severe disabilities could still have mobility, access, and a fuller quality of life than anyone had imagined. His mission, along with Hall's, then became gifting this independence to others like himself. Robin and Hall raised money – first from the Ernest Kleinwort Charitable Trust, and then from the British Department of Health – to fund more ventilator chairs, which were then manufactured by Hall's company, Littlemore Scientific Engineering, and given to fellow patients who wanted to live full lives at home. Robin and Hall used themselves as guinea pigs, testing out different models of the chairs and collaborating with scientists to create other devices for those with disabilities. One invention, called the Possum, allowed paraplegics to control things like the telephone and television set with just a nod of the head. Robin's wheelchair was not only the first of its kind; it became the model for the respiratory wheelchairs that people still use today.
Robin went on to enjoy a long and happy life with his family at their house in South Oxfordshire, surrounded by friends who would later attest to his "down-to-earth" personality, his sense of humor, and his "irresistible" charm. When he died peacefully at his home in 1994 at age 64, he was considered the world's oldest-living person who used a ventilator outside the hospital – breaking yet another barrier for what medical science thought was possible.
Sarah Watts is a health and science writer based in Chicago. Follow her on Twitter at @swattswrites.
In June 2012, Kirstie Ennis was six months into her second deployment to Afghanistan and recently promoted to sergeant. The helicopter gunner and seven others were three hours into a routine mission of combat resupplies and troop transport when their CH-53D helicopter went down hard.
Miraculously, all eight people onboard survived, but Ennis' injuries were many and severe. She had a torn rotator cuff, torn labrum, crushed cervical discs, facial fractures, deep lacerations and traumatic brain injury. Despite a severely fractured ankle, doctors managed to save her foot, for a while at least.
In November 2015, after three years of constant pain and too many surgeries to count, Ennis relented. She elected to undergo a lower leg amputation but only after she completed the 1,000-mile, 72-day Walking with the Wounded journey across the UK.
On Veteran's Day of that year, on the other side of the country, orthopedic surgeon Cato Laurencin announced a moonshot challenge he was setting out to achieve on behalf of wounded warriors like Ennis: the Hartford Engineering A Limb (HEAL) Project.
Laurencin, who is a University of Connecticut professor of chemical, materials and biomedical engineering, teamed up with experts in tissue bioengineering and regenerative medicine from Harvard, Columbia, UC Irvine and SASTRA University in India. Laurencin and his colleagues at the Connecticut Convergence Institute for Translation in Regenerative Engineering made a bold commitment to regenerate an entire limb within 15 years – by the year 2030.
Dr. Cato Laurencin pictured in his office at UConn.
Photo Credit: UConn
Regenerative Engineering -- A Whole New Field
Limb regeneration in humans has been a medical and scientific fascination for decades, with little to show for the effort. However, Laurencin believes that if we are to reach the next level of 21st century medical advances, this puzzle must be solved.
An estimated 185,000 people undergo upper or lower limb amputation every year. Despite the significant advances in electromechanical prosthetics, these individuals still lack the ability to perform complex functions such as sensation for tactile input, normal gait and movement feedback. As far as Laurencin is concerned, the only clinical answer that makes sense is to regenerate a whole functional limb.
Laurencin feels other regeneration efforts were hampered by their siloed research methods with chemists, surgeons, engineers all working separately. Success, he argues, requires a paradigm shift to a trans-disciplinary approach that brings together cutting-edge technologies from disparate fields such as biology, material sciences, physical, chemical and engineering sciences.
As the only surgeon ever inducted into the academies of Science, Medicine and Innovation, Laurencin is uniquely suited for the challenge. He is regarded as the founder of Regenerative Engineering, defined as the convergence of advanced materials sciences, stem cell sciences, physics, developmental biology and clinical translation for the regeneration of complex tissues and organ systems.
But none of this is achievable without early clinician participation across scientific fields to develop new technologies and a deeper understanding of how to harness the body's innate regenerative capabilities. "When I perform a surgical procedure or something is torn or needs to be repaired, I count on the body being involved in regenerating tissue," he says. "So, understanding how the body works to regenerate itself and harnessing that ability is an important factor for the regeneration process."
The Birth of the Vision
Laurencin's passion for regeneration began when he was a sports medicine fellow at Cornell University Medical Center in the early 1990s. There he saw a significant number of injuries to the anterior cruciate ligament (ACL), the major ligament that stabilizes the knee. He believed he could develop a better way to address those injuries using biomaterials to regenerate the ligament. He sketched out a preliminary drawing on a napkin one night over dinner. He has spent the next 30 years regenerating tissues, including the patented L-C ligament.
As chair of Orthopaedic Surgery at the University of Virginia during the peak of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, Laurencin treated military personnel who survived because of improved helmets, body armor and battlefield medicine but were left with more devastating injuries, including traumatic brain injuries and limb loss.
"I was so honored to care for them and I so admired their steadfast courage that I became determined to do something big for them," says Laurencin.
When he tells people about his plans to regrow a limb, he gets a lot of eye rolls, which he finds amusing but not discouraging. Growing bone cells was relatively new when he was first focused on regenerating bone in 1987 at MIT; in 2007 he was well on his way to regenerating ligaments at UVA when many still doubted that ligaments could even be reconstructed. He and his team have already regenerated torn rotator cuff tendons and ACL ligaments using a nano-textured fabric seeded with stem cells.
Even as a finalist for the $4 million NIH Pioneer Award for high-risk/high-reward research, he faced a skeptical scientific audience in 2014. "They said, 'Well what do you plan to do?' I said 'I plan to regenerate a whole limb in people.' There was a lot of incredulousness. They stared at me and asked a lot of questions. About three days later, I received probably the best score I've ever gotten on an NIH grant."
In the Thick of the Science
Humans are born with regenerative abilities--two-year-olds have regrown fingertips--but lose that ability with age. Salamanders are the only vertebrates that can regenerate lost body parts as adults; axolotl, the rare Mexican salamander, can grow extra limbs.
The axolotl is important as a model organism because it is a four-footed vertebrate with a similar body plan to humans. Mapping the axolotl genome in 2018 enhanced scientists' genetic understanding of their evolution, development, and regeneration. Being easy to breed in captivity allowed the HEAL team to closely study these amphibians and discover a new cell type they believe may shed light on how to mimic the process in humans.
"Whenever limb regeneration takes place in the salamander, there is a huge amount of something called heparan sulfate around that area," explains Laurencin. "We thought, 'What if this heparan sulfate is the key ingredient to allowing regeneration to take place?' We found these groups of cells that were interspersed in tissues during the time of regeneration that seemed to have connections to each other that expressed this heparan sulfate."
Called GRID (Groups that are Regenerative, Interspersed and Dendritic), these cells were also recently discovered in mice. While GRID cells don't regenerate as well in mice as in salamanders, finding them in mammals was significant.
"If they're found in mice. we might be able to find these in humans in some form," Laurencin says. "We think maybe it will help us figure out regeneration or we can create cells that mimic what grid cells do and create an artificial grid cell."
What Comes Next?
Laurencin and his team have individually engineered and made every single tissue in the lower limb, including bone, cartilage, ligament, skin, nerve, blood vessels. Regenerating joints and joint tissue is the next big mile marker, which Laurencin sees as essential to regenerating a limb that functions and performs in the way he envisions.
"Using stem cells and amnion tissue, we can regenerate joints that are damaged, and have severe arthritis," he says. "We're making progress on all fronts, and making discoveries we believe are going to be helping people along the way."
That focus and advancement is vital to Ennis. After laboring over the decision to have her leg amputated below the knee, she contracted MRSA two weeks post-surgery. In less than a month, she went from a below-the-knee-amputee to a through-the-knee amputee to an above-the-knee amputee.
"A below-the-knee amputation is night-and-day from above-the-knee," she said. "You have to relearn everything. You're basically a toddler."
Kirstie Ennis pictured in July 2020.
Photo Credit: Ennis' Instagram
The clock is ticking on the timeline Laurencin set for himself. Nine years might seem like forever if you're doing time but it might appear fleeting when you're trying to create something that's never been done before. But Laurencin isn't worried. He's convinced time is on his side.
"Every week, I receive an email or a call from someone, maybe a mother whose child has lost a finger or I'm in communication with a disabled American veteran who wants to know how the progress is going. That energizes me to continue to work hard to try to create these sorts of solutions because we're talking about people and their lives."
He devotes about 60 hours a week to the project and the roughly 100 students, faculty and staff who make up the HEAL team at the Convergence Institute seem acutely aware of what's at stake and appear equally dedicated.
"We're in the thick of the science in terms of making this happen," says Laurencin. "We've moved from making the impossible possible to making the possible a reality. That's what science is all about."