For five weeks, Anita Freeman watched her sister writhe in pain. The colon cancer diagnosed four years earlier became metastatic.
"I still wouldn't wish that ending on my worst enemy."
At this tormenting juncture, her 66-year-old sister, Elizabeth Martin, wanted to die comfortably in her sleep. But doctors wouldn't help fulfill that final wish.
"It haunts me," Freeman, 74, who lives in Long Beach, California, says in recalling the prolonged agony. Her sister "was breaking out of the house and running in her pajamas down the sidewalk, screaming, 'Help me. Help me.' She just went into a total panic."
Finally, a post-acute care center offered pentobarbital, a sedative that induced a state of unconsciousness, but only after an empathetic palliative care doctor called and insisted on ending the inhumane suffering. "We even had to fight the owners of the facility to get them to agree to the recommendations," Freeman says, describing it as "the only option we had at that time; I still wouldn't wish that ending on my worst enemy."
Her sister died a week later, in 2014. That was two years before California's medical aid-in-dying law took effect, making doctors less reliant on palliative sedation to peacefully end unbearable suffering for terminally ill patients. Now, Freeman volunteers for Compassion & Choices, a national grassroots organization based in Portland, Oregon, that advocates for expanding end-of-life options.
Palliative sedation involves medicating a terminally ill patient into lowered awareness or unconsciousness in order to relieve otherwise intractable suffering at the end of life. It is not intended to cause death, which occurs due to the patient's underlying disease.
In contrast, euthanasia involves directly and deliberately ending a patient's life. Euthanasia is legal only in Canada and some European countries and requires a health care professional to administer the medication. In the United States, laws in seven states and Washington, D.C. give terminally ill patients the option to obtain prescription medication they can take to die peacefully in their sleep, but they must be able to self-adminster it.
Recently, palliative sedation has been gaining more acceptance among medical professionals as an occasional means to relieve suffering, even if it may advance the time of death, as some clinicians believe. However, studies have found no evidence of this claim. Many doctors and bioethicists emphasize that intent is what distinguishes palliative sedation from euthanasia. Others disagree. It's common for controversy to swirl around when and how to apply this practice.
Elizabeth Martin with her sister Anita Freeman in happier times, before metastatic cancer caused her tremendous suffering at the end of her life.
(Courtesy Anita Freeman)
"Intent is everything in ethics. The rigor and protocols we have around palliative sedation therapy also speaks to it being an intervention directed to ease refractory distress," says Martha Twaddle, medical director of palliative medicine and supportive care at Northwestern University's Lake Forest Hospital in Lake Forest, Illinois.
Palliative sedation should be considered only when pain, shortness of breath, and other unbearable symptoms don't respond to conventional treatments. Left to his or her own devices, a patient in this predicament could become restless, Twaddle says, noting that "agitated delirium is a horrible symptom for a family to witness."
At other times, "we don't want to be too quick to sedate," particularly in cases of purely "existential distress"—when a patient experiences anticipatory grief around "saying goodbye" to loved ones, she explains. "We want to be sure we're applying the right therapy for the problem."
Encouraging patients to reconcile with their kin may help them find inner peace. Nonmedical interventions worth exploring include quieting the environment and adjusting lighting to simulate day and night, Twaddle says.
Music-thanatology also can have a calming effect. It is live, prescriptive music, mainly employing the harp or voice, tailored to the patient's physiological needs by tuning into vital signs such as heart rate, respiration, and temperature, according to the Music-Thanatology Association International.
"When we integrated this therapeutic modality in 2003, our need for using palliative sedation therapy dropped 75 percent and has remained low ever since," Twaddle observes. "We have this as part of our care for treating refractory symptoms."
"If palliative sedation is being employed properly with the right patient, it should not hasten death."
Ethical concerns surrounding euthanasia often revolve around the term "terminal sedation," which "can entail a physician deciding that the patient is a lost cause—incurable medically and in substantial pain that cannot adequately be relieved," says John Kilner, professor and director of the bioethics programs at Trinity International University in Deerfield, Illinois.
By halting sedation at reasonable intervals, the care team can determine whether significant untreatable pain persists. Periodic discontinuation serves as "evidence that the physician is still working to restore the patient rather than merely to usher the patient painlessly into death," Kilner explains. "Indeed, sometimes after a period of unconsciousness, with the body relieved of unceasing pain, the body can recover enough to make the pain treatable."
The medications for palliative sedation "are tried and true sedatives that we've had for a long time, for many years, so they're predictable," says Joe Rotella, chief medical officer at the American Academy of Hospice and Palliative Medicine.
Some patients prefer to keep their eyes open and remain conscious to answer by name, while others tell their doctors in advance that they want to be more heavily sedated while receiving medications to manage pain and other symptoms. "We adjust the dosage until the patient is sleeping at a desired level of sedation," Rotella says.
Sedation is an intrinsic side effect of most medications prescribed to control severe symptoms in terminally ill patients. In general, most people die in a sleepy state, except for instances of sudden, dramatic death resulting from a major heart attack or stroke, says Ryan R. Nash, a palliative medicine physician and director of The Ohio State University Center for Bioethics in Columbus.
"Using those medications to treat pain or shortness of breath is not palliative sedation," Nash says. In addition, providing supplemental nutrition and hydration in situations where death is imminent—with a prognosis limited to hours or days—generally doesn't help prolong life. "If palliative sedation is being employed properly with the right patient," he adds, "it should not hasten death."
Nonetheless, hospice nurses sometimes feel morally distressed over carrying out palliative sedation. Implementing protocols at health systems would help guide them and alleviate some of their concerns, says Gregg VandeKieft, medical director for palliative care at Providence St. Joseph Health's Southwest Washington Region in Olympia, Washington. "It creates guardrails by sort of standardizing and normalizing things," he says.
"Our goal is to restore our patient. It's never to take their life."
The concept of proportionality weighs heavily in the process of palliative sedation. But sometimes substantial doses are necessary. For instance, an opioid-tolerant patient recently needed an unusually large amount of medication to control symptoms. She was in a state of illness-induced confusion and pain, says David E. Smith, a palliative medicine physician at Baptist Health Supportive Care in Little Rock, Arkansas.
Still, "we are parsimonious in what we do. We only use as much therapeutic force as necessary to achieve our goals," Smith says. "Our goal is to restore our patient. It's never to take their life."
Glioblastoma is an aggressive and deadly brain cancer, causing more than 10,000 deaths in the US per year. In the last 30 years there has only been limited improvement in the survival rate despite advances in radiation therapy and chemotherapy. Today the typical survival rate is just 14 months and that extra time is spent suffering from the adverse and often brutal effects of radiation and chemotherapy.
Scientists are trying to design more effective treatments for glioblastoma with fewer side effects. Now, a team at the Department of Neurosurgery at Houston Methodist Hospital has created a magnetic helmet-based treatment called oncomagnetic therapy: a promising non-invasive treatment for shrinking cancerous tumors. In the first patient tried, the device was able to reduce the tumor of a glioblastoma patient by 31%. The researchers caution, however, that much more research is needed to determine its safety and effectiveness.
How It Works
“The whole idea originally came from a conversation I had with General Norman Schwarzkopf, a supposedly brilliant military strategist,” says Dr David Baskin, professor of neurosurgery and leader of the effort at Houston Methodist. “I asked him what is the secret to your success and he said, ‘Energy. Take out the power grid and the enemy can't communicate.’ So I thought about what supplies [energy to] cancer, especially brain cancer.”
Baskin came up with the idea of targeting the mitochondria, which process and produce energy for cancer cells.
This is the most exciting thing in glioblastoma treatment I've seen since I've been a neurosurgeon but it is very preliminary.”
The magnetic helmet creates a powerful oscillating magnetic field. At a set range of frequencies and timings, it disrupts the flow of electrons in the mitochondria of cancer cells. This leads to a release of certain chemicals called ROS (Reactive Oxygen Species). In normal cells, this excess ROS is much lower, and is neutralized by other chemicals called antioxidants.
However, cancer cells already have more ROS: they grow rapidly and uncontrollably so their mitochondria need to produce more energy which in turn generates more ROS. By using the powerful magnetic field, levels of ROS get so high that the malignant cells are torn apart.
The biggest challenge was working out the specific range of frequencies and timing parameters they needed to use to kill cancer cells. It took skill, intuition, luck and lots of experiments. The helmet could theoretically be used to treat all types of glioblastoma.
Developing the magnetic helmet was a collaborative process. Dr Santosh Helekar is a neuroscientist at Houston Methodist Research Institute and the director of oncomagnetics (magnetic cancer therapies) at the Peak Center in Houston Methodist Hospital. His previous invention with colleagues gave the team a starting point to build on. “About 7 years back I developed a portable brain magnetic stimulation device to conduct brain research,” Helekar says. “We [then] conducted a pilot clinical trial in stroke patients. The results were promising.”
Helekar presented his findings to neurosurgeons including Baskin. They decided to collaborate. With a team of scientists behind them, they modified the device to kill cancer cells.
The magnetic helmet studied for treatment of glioblastoma
Dr. David Baskin
After success in the lab, the team got FDA approval to conduct a compassionate trial in a 53-year-old man with end-stage glioblastoma. He had tried every other treatment available. But within 30 days of using the magnetic helmet his tumor shrank by 31%.
Sadly, 36 days into the treatment, the patient had an unrelated head injury due to a fall. The treatment was paused and he later died of the injury. Autopsy results of his brain highlighted the dramatic reduction in tumor cells.
Baskin says, “This is the most exciting thing in glioblastoma treatment I've seen since I've been a neurosurgeon but it is very preliminary.”
The helmet is part of a growing number of non-invasive cancer treatments. One device that is currently being used by glioblastoma patients is Optune. It uses electric fields called tumor treating fields to slow down cell division and has been through a successful phase 3 clinical trial.
The magnetic helmet has the promise to be another useful non-invasive treatment according to Professor Gabriel Zada, a neurosurgeon and director of the USC Brain Tumor Center. “We're learning that various electromagnetic fields and tumor treating fields appear to play a role in glioblastoma. So there is some precedent for this though the tumor treating fields work a little differently. I think there is major potential for it to be effective but of course it will require some trials.”
Professor Jonathan Sherman, a neurosurgeon and director of neuro-oncology at West Virginia University, reiterates the need for further testing. “It sounds interesting but it’s too early to tell what kind of long-term efficacy you get. We do not have enough data. Also if you’re disrupting [the magnetic field] you could negatively impact a patient. You could be affecting the normal conduction of electromagnetic activity in the brain.”
The team is currently extending their research. They are now testing the treatment in two other patients with end-stage glioblastoma. The immediate challenge is getting FDA approval for those at an earlier stage of the disease who are more likely to benefit.
Baskin and the team are designing a clinical trial in the U.S., .U.K. and Germany. After positive results in cell cultures, they’re in negotiations to collaborate with other researchers in using the technology for lung and breast cancer. With breast cancer, the soft tissue is easier to access so a magnetic device could be worn over the breast.
“My hope is to develop a treatment to treat and hopefully cure glioblastoma without radiation or chemotherapy,” Baskin says. “We're onto a strategy that could make a huge difference for patients with this disease and probably for patients with many other forms of cancer.”
Astronauts at the International Space Station today depend on pre-packaged, freeze-dried food, plus some fresh produce thanks to regular resupply missions. This supply chain, however, will not be available on trips further out, such as the moon or Mars. So what are astronauts on long missions going to eat?
Going by the options available now, says Christel Paille, an engineer at the European Space Agency, a lunar expedition is likely to have only dehydrated foods. “So no more fresh product, and a limited amount of already hydrated product in cans.”
For the Mars mission, the situation is a bit more complex, she says. Prepackaged food could still constitute most of their food, “but combined with [on site] production of certain food products…to get them fresh.” A Mars mission isn’t right around the corner, but scientists are currently working on solutions for how to feed those astronauts. A number of boundary-pushing efforts are now underway.
The logistics of growing plants in space, of course, are very different from Earth. There is no gravity, sunlight, or atmosphere. High levels of ionizing radiation stunt plant growth. Plus, plants take up a lot of space, something that is, ironically, at a premium up there. These and special nutritional requirements of spacefarers have given scientists some specific and challenging problems.
To study fresh food production systems, NASA runs the Vegetable Production System (Veggie) on the ISS. Deployed in 2014, Veggie has been growing salad-type plants on “plant pillows” filled with growth media, including a special clay and controlled-release fertilizer, and a passive wicking watering system. They have had some success growing leafy greens and even flowers.
"Ideally, we would like a system which has zero waste and, therefore, needs zero input, zero additional resources."
A larger farming facility run by NASA on the ISS is the Advanced Plant Habitat to study how plants grow in space. This fully-automated, closed-loop system has an environmentally controlled growth chamber and is equipped with sensors that relay real-time information about temperature, oxygen content, and moisture levels back to the ground team at Kennedy Space Center in Florida. In December 2020, the ISS crew feasted on radishes grown in the APH.
“But salad doesn’t give you any calories,” says Erik Seedhouse, a researcher at the Applied Aviation Sciences Department at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in Florida. “It gives you some minerals, but it doesn’t give you a lot of carbohydrates.” Seedhouse also noted in his 2020 book Life Support Systems for Humans in Space: “Integrating the growing of plants into a life support system is a fiendishly difficult enterprise.” As a case point, he referred to the ESA’s Micro-Ecological Life Support System Alternative (MELiSSA) program that has been running since 1989 to integrate growing of plants in a closed life support system such as a spacecraft.
Paille, one of the scientists running MELiSSA, says that the system aims to recycle the metabolic waste produced by crew members back into the metabolic resources required by them: “The aim is…to come [up with] a closed, sustainable system which does not [need] any logistics resupply.” MELiSSA uses microorganisms to process human excretions in order to harvest carbon dioxide and nitrate to grow plants. “Ideally, we would like a system which has zero waste and, therefore, needs zero input, zero additional resources,” Paille adds.
Microorganisms play a big role as “fuel” in food production in extreme places, including in space. Last year, researchers discovered Methylobacterium strains on the ISS, including some never-seen-before species. Kasthuri Venkateswaran of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, one of the researchers involved in the study, says, “[The] isolation of novel microbes that help to promote the plant growth under stressful conditions is very essential… Certain bacteria can decompose complex matter into a simple nutrient [that] the plants can absorb.” These microbes, which have already adapted to space conditions—such as the absence of gravity and increased radiation—boost various plant growth processes and help withstand the harsh physical environment.
MELiSSA, says Paille, has demonstrated that it is possible to grow plants in space. “This is important information because…we didn’t know whether the space environment was affecting the biological cycle of the plant…[and of] cyanobacteria.” With the scientific and engineering aspects of a closed, self-sustaining life support system becoming clearer, she says, the next stage is to find out if it works in space. They plan to run tests recycling human urine into useful components, including those that promote plant growth.
The MELiSSA pilot plant uses rats currently, and needs to be translated for human subjects for further studies. “Demonstrating the process and well-being of a rat in terms of providing water, sufficient oxygen, and recycling sufficient carbon dioxide, in a non-stressful manner, is one thing,” Paille says, “but then, having a human in the loop [means] you also need to integrate user interfaces from the operational point of view.”
Growing food in space comes with an additional caveat that underscores its high stakes. Barbara Demmig-Adams from the Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology at the University of Colorado Boulder explains, “There are conditions that actually will hurt your health more than just living here on earth. And so the need for nutritious food and micronutrients is even greater for an astronaut than for [you and] me.”
Demmig-Adams, who has worked on increasing the nutritional quality of plants for long-duration spaceflight missions, also adds that there is no need to reinvent the wheel. Her work has focused on duckweed, a rather unappealingly named aquatic plant. “It is 100 percent edible, grows very fast, it’s very small, and like some other floating aquatic plants, also produces a lot of protein,” she says. “And here on Earth, studies have shown that the amount of protein you get from the same area of these floating aquatic plants is 20 times higher compared to soybeans.”
Aquatic plants also tend to grow well in microgravity: “Plants that float on water, they don’t respond to gravity, they just hug the water film… They don’t need to know what’s up and what’s down.” On top of that, she adds, “They also produce higher concentrations of really important micronutrients, antioxidants that humans need, especially under space radiation.” In fact, duckweed, when subjected to high amounts of radiation, makes nutrients called carotenoids that are crucial for fighting radiation damage. “We’ve looked at dozens and dozens of plants, and the duckweed makes more of this radiation fighter…than anything I’ve seen before.”
Despite all the scientific advances and promising leads, no one really knows what the conditions so far out in space will be and what new challenges they will bring. As Paille says, “There are known unknowns and unknown unknowns.”
One definite “known” for astronauts is that growing their food is the ideal scenario for space travel in the long term since “[taking] all your food along with you, for best part of two years, that’s a lot of space and a lot of weight,” as Seedhouse says. That said, once they land on Mars, they’d have to think about what to eat all over again. “Then you probably want to start building a greenhouse and growing food there [as well],” he adds.
And that is a whole different challenge altogether.