This Mom Donated Her Lost Baby’s Tissue to Research
The twin boys growing within her womb filled Sarah Gray with both awe and dread. The sonogram showed that one, Callum, seemed to be the healthy child she and husband Ross had long sought; the other, Thomas, had anencephaly, a fatal developmental disorder of the skull and brain that likely would limit his life to hours. The options were to carry the boys to term or terminate both.
The decision to donate Thomas' tissue to research comforted Sarah. It brought a sense of purpose and meaning to her son's anticipated few breaths.
Sarah learned that researchers prize tissue as essential to better understanding and eventually treating the rare disorder that afflicted her son. And that other tissue from the developing infant might prove useful for transplant or basic research.
Animal models have been useful in figuring out some of the basics of genetics and how the body responds to disease. But a mouse is not a man. The new tools of precision medicine that measure gene expression, proteins and metabolites – the various chemical products and signals that fluctuate in health and illness – are most relevant when studying human tissue directly rather than in animals.
The decision to donate Thomas' tissue to research comforted Sarah. It brought a sense of purpose and meaning to her son's anticipated few breaths.
(Photo credit: Mark Walpole)
Later Sarah would track down where some of the donated tissues had been sent and how they were being used. It was a rare initiative that just may spark a new kind of relationship between donor families and researchers who use human tissue.
Organ donation for transplant gets all the attention. That process is simple, direct, life saving, the stories are easy to understand and play out regularly in the media. Reimbursement fully covers costs.
Tissue donation for research is murkier. Seldom is there a direct one-to-one correlation between individual donation and discovery; often hundreds, sometimes thousands of samples are needed to tease out the basic mechanisms of a disease, even more to develop a treatment or cure. The research process can be agonizingly slow. And somebody has to pay for collecting, processing, and getting donations into the hands of appropriate researchers. That story rarely is told, so most people are not even aware it is possible, let alone vital to research.
Gray set out on a quest to follow where Thomas' tissue had gone and how it was being used to advance research and care.
The dichotomy between transplant and research became real for Sarah several months after the birth of her twins, and Thomas' brief life, at a meeting for families of transplant donors. Many of the participants had found closure to their grieving through contact with grateful recipients of a heart, liver, or kidney who had gained a new lease on life. But there was no similar process for those who donated for research. Sarah felt a bit, well, jealous. She wanted that type of connection too.
Gray set out on a quest to follow where Thomas' tissue had gone and how it was being used to advance research and care. Those encounters were as novel for the researchers as they were for Sarah. The experience turned her into an advocate for public education and financial and operational changes to put tissue donation for research on par with donations for transplant.
Thomas' retina had been collected and processed by the National Disease Research Interchange (NDRI), a nonprofit that performs such services for researchers on a cost recovery basis with support from the National Institutes of Health. The tissue was passed on to Arupa Ganguly, who is studying retinoblastoma, a cancer of the eye, at the University of Pennsylvania.
Ganguly was surprised and apprehensive months later when NDRI emailed her saying the mother of donated tissue wanted to learn more about how the retina was being used. That was unusual because research donations generally are anonymous.
The geneticist waited a day or two, then wrote an explanation of her work and forwarded it back through NDRI. Soon the researcher and mother were talking by phone and Sarah would visit the lab. Even then, Ganguly felt very uncomfortable. "Something very bad happened to your son Thomas but it was a benefit for me, so I'm feeling very bad," she told Sarah.
"And Sarah said, Arupa, you were the only ones who wanted his retinas. If you didn't request them, they would be buried in the ground. It gives me a sense of fulfillment to know that they were of some use," Ganguly recalls. And her apprehension melted away. The two became friends and have visited several times.
Sarah Gray visits Dr. Arupa Ganguly at the University of Pennsylvania's Genetic Diagnostic Laboratory.
(Photo credit: Daniel Burke)
Reading Sarah Gray's story led Gregory Grossman to reach out to the young mother and to create Hope and Healing, a program that brings donors and researchers together. Grossman is director of research programs at Eversight, a large network of eye banks that stretches from the Midwest to the East Coast. It supplies tissue for transplant and ocular research.
"Research seems a cold and distant thing," Grossman says, "we need to educate the general public on the importance and need for tissue donations for research, which can help us better understand disease and find treatments."
"Our own internal culture needs to be shifted too," he adds. "Researchers and surgeons can forget that these are precious gifts, they're not a commodity, they're not manufactured. Without people's generosity this doesn't exist."
The initial Hope and Healing meetings between researchers and donor families have gone well and Grossman hopes to increase them to three a year with support from the Lions Club. He sees it as a crucial element in trying to reverse the decline in ocular donations even while research needs continue to grow.
What people hear about is "Tuskegee, Henrietta Lacks, they hear about the scandals, they don't hear about the good news. I would like to change that."
Since writing about her experience in the 2016 book "A Life Everlasting," Gray has come to believe that potential donor families, and even people who administer donation programs, often are unaware of the possibility of donating for research.
And roadblocks are common for those who seek to do so. Just like her, many families have had to be persistent in their quest to donate, and even educate their medical providers. But Sarah believes the internet is facilitating creation of a grassroots movement of empowered donors who are pushing procurement systems to be more responsive to their desires to donate for research. A lot of it comes through anecdote, stories, and people asking, if they have done it in Virginia, or Ohio, why can't we do it here?
Callum Gray and Dr. Arupa Ganguly hug during his family's visit to the lab.
(Photo credit: Daniel Burke)
Gray has spoken at medical and research facilities and at conferences. Some researchers are curious to have contact with the families of donors, but she believes the research system fosters the belief that "you don't want to open that can of worms." And lurking in the background may be a fear of liability issues somehow arising.
"I believe that 99 percent of what happens in research is very positive, and those stories would come out if the connections could be made," says Sarah Gray. But what they hear about is "Tuskegee, Henrietta Lacks, they hear about the scandals, they don't hear about the good news. I would like to change that."
A new competition by the XPRIZE Foundation is offering $101 million to researchers who discover therapies that give a boost to people aged 65-80 so their bodies perform more like when they were middle-aged.
For today’s podcast episode, I talked with Dr. Peter Diamandis, XPRIZE’s founder and executive chairman. Under Peter’s leadership, XPRIZE has launched 27 previous competitions with over $300 million in prize purses. The latest contest aims to enhance healthspan, or the period of life when older people can play with their grandkids without any restriction, disability or disease. Such breakthroughs could help prevent chronic diseases that are closely linked to aging. These illnesses are costly to manage and threaten to overwhelm the healthcare system, as the number of Americans over age 65 is rising fast.
In this contest, called XPRIZE Healthspan, multiple awards are available, depending on what’s achieved. They’re sponsored mainly by the nonprofit Hevolution Foundation and Chip Wilson, the founder of Lululemon and nonprofit SOLVE FSHD. The biggest prize, $81 million, is for improvements in cognition, muscle and immunity by 20 years. $71 million is for making 15 years worth of these gains, and $61 million would be for 10 years difference.
In our conversation for this episode, Peter talks about his plans for XPRIZE Healthspan and why exponential technologies make the current era that we’re living in the most exciting time in human history.
We also discuss the best mental outlook that supports a person in becoming truly innovative, as well as the downsides of too much risk aversion. We talk about how to overcome the negativity bias in ourselves and in mainstream media, how Peter has shifted his own mindset to become more positive over the years, how to inspire a culture of innovation, Peter’s personal recommendations for lifestyle strategies to live longer and healthier, the innovations we can expect in various fields by 2030, the future of education and the importance of democratizing tech and innovation.
In addition to Peter’s pioneering leadership of XPRIZE, he is also the Executive Founder of Singularity University. In 2014, he was named by Fortune as one of the “World’s 50 Greatest Leaders.” As an entrepreneur, he’s started over 25 companies in the areas of health-tech, space, venture capital and education. He’s Co-founder and Vice-Chairman of two public companies, Celularity and Vaxxinity, plus being Co-founder & Chairman of Fountain Life, a fully-integrated platform delivering predictive, preventative, personalized and data-driven health. He also serves as Co-founder of BOLD Capital Partners, a venture fund with a half-billion dollars under management being invested in exponential technologies and longevity companies. Peter is a New York Times Bestselling author of four books, noted during our conversation and in the show notes of this episode. He has degrees in molecular genetics and aerospace engineering from MIT and holds an M.D. from Harvard Medical School.
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XPRIZE Founder Peter Diamandis speaks with Mehmoud Khan, CEO of Hevolution Foundation, at an event on November 29 that launched XPRIZE Healthspan.
From infections with no symptoms to why men are more likely to be hospitalized in the ICU and die of COVID-19, new research shows that your genes play a significant role
Early in the pandemic, genetic research focused on the virus because it was readily available. Plus, the virus contains only 30,000 bases in a dozen functional genes, so it's relatively easy and affordable to sequence. Additionally, the rapid mutation of the virus and its ability to escape antibody control fueled waves of different variants and provided a reason to follow viral genetics.
In comparison, there are many more genes of the human immune system and cellular functions that affect viral replication, with about 3.2 billion base pairs. Human studies require samples from large numbers of people, the analysis of each sample is vastly more complex, and sophisticated computer analysis often is required to make sense of the raw data. All of this takes time and large amounts of money, but important findings are beginning to emerge.
About half the people exposed to SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes the COVID-19 disease, never develop symptoms of this disease, or their symptoms are so mild they often go unnoticed. One piece of understanding the phenomena came when researchers showed that exposure to OC43, a common coronavirus that results in symptoms of a cold, generates immune system T cells that also help protect against SARS-CoV-2.
Jill Hollenbach, an immunologist at the University of California at San Francisco, sought to identify the gene behind that immune protection. Most COVID-19 genetic studies are done with the most seriously ill patients because they are hospitalized and thus available. “But 99 percent of people who get it will never see the inside of a hospital for COVID-19,” she says. “They are home, they are not interacting with the health care system.”
Early in the pandemic, when most labs were shut down, she tapped into the National Bone Marrow Donor Program database. It contains detailed information on donor human leukocyte antigens (HLAs), key genes in the immune system that must match up between donor and recipient for successful transplants of marrow or organs. Each HLA can contain alleles, slight molecular differences in the DNA of the HLA, which can affect its function. Potential HLA combinations can number in the tens of thousands across the world, says Hollenbach, but each person has a smaller number of those possible variants.
She teamed up with the COVID-19 Citizen Science Study a smartphone-based study to track COVID-19 symptoms and outcomes, to ask persons in the bone marrow donor registry about COVID-19. The study enlisted more than 30,000 volunteers. Those volunteers already had their HLAs annotated by the registry, and 1,428 tested positive for the virus.
Analyzing five key HLAs, she found an allele in the gene HLA-B*15:01 that was significantly overrepresented in people who didn’t have any symptoms. The effect was even stronger if a person had inherited the allele from both parents; these persons were “more than eight times more likely to remain asymptomatic than persons who did not carry the genetic variant,” she says. Altogether this HLA was present in about 10 percent of the general European population but double that percentage in the asymptomatic group. Hollenbach and her colleagues were able confirm this in other different groups of patients.
What made the allele so potent against SARS-CoV-2? Part of the answer came from x-ray crystallography. A key element was the molecular shape of parts of the cold virus OC43 and SARS-CoV-2. They were virtually identical, and the allele could bind very tightly to them, present their molecular antigens to T cells, and generate an extremely potent T cell response to the viruses. And “for whatever reasons that generated a lot of memory T cells that are going to stick around for a long time,” says Hollenbach. “This T cell response is very early in infection and ramps up very quickly, even before the antibody response.”
Understanding the genetics of the immune response to SARS-CoV-2 is important because it provides clues into the conditions of T cells and antigens that support a response without any symptoms, she says. “It gives us an opportunity to think about whether this might be a vaccine design strategy.”
A researcher at the Leibniz Institute of Virology in Hamburg Germany, Guelsah Gabriel, was drawn to a question at the other end of the COVID-19 spectrum: why men more likely to be hospitalized and die from the infection. It wasn't that men were any more likely to be exposed to the virus but more likely, how their immune system reacted to it
Several studies had noted that testosterone levels were significantly lower in men hospitalized with COVID-19. And, in general, the lower the testosterone, the worse the prognosis. A year after recovery, about 30 percent of men still had lower than normal levels of testosterone, a condition known as hypogonadism. Most of the men also had elevated levels of estradiol, a female hormone (https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/34402750/).
Every cell has a sex, expressing receptors for male and female hormones on their surface. Hormones docking with these receptors affect the cells' internal function and the signals they send to other cells. The number and role of these receptors varies from tissue to tissue.
Gabriel began her search by examining whole exome sequences, the protein-coding part of the genome, for key enzymes involved in the metabolism of sex hormones. The research team quickly zeroed in on CYP19A1, an enzyme that converts testosterone to estradiol. The gene that produces this enzyme has a number of different alleles, the molecular variants that affect the enzyme's rate of metabolizing the sex hormones. One genetic variant, CYP19A1 (Thr201Met), is typically found in 6.2 percent of all people, both men and women, but remarkably, they found it in 68.7 percent of men who were hospitalized with COVID-19.
Lungs are the tissue most affected in COVID-19 disease. Gabriel wondered if the virus might be affecting expression of their target gene in the lung so that it produces more of the enzyme that converts testosterone to estradiol. Studying cells in a petri dish, they saw no change in gene expression when they infected cells of lung tissue with influenza and the original SARS-CoV viruses that caused the SARS outbreak in 2002. But exposure to SARS-CoV-2, the virus responsible for COVID-19, increased gene expression up to 40-fold, Gabriel says.
Did the same thing happen in humans? Autopsy examination of patients in three different cites found that “CYP19A1 was abundantly expressed in the lungs of COVID-19 males but not those who died of other respiratory infections,” says Gabriel. This increased enzyme production led likely to higher levels of estradiol in the lungs of men, which “is highly inflammatory, damages the tissue, and can result in fibrosis or scarring that inhibits lung function and repair long after the virus itself has disappeared.” Somehow the virus had acquired the capacity to upregulate expression of CYP19A1.
Only two COVID-19 positive females showed increased expression of this gene. The menopause status of these women, or whether they were on hormone replacement therapy was not known. That could be important because female hormones have a protective effect for cardiovascular disease, which women often lose after going through menopause, especially if they don’t start hormone replacement therapy. That sex-specific protection might also extend to COVID-19 and merits further study.
The team was able to confirm their findings in golden hamsters, the animal model of choice for studying COVID-19. Testosterone levels in male animals dropped 5-fold three days after infection and began to recover as viral levels declined. CYP19A1 transcription increased up to 15-fold in the lungs of the male but not the females. The study authors wrote, “Virus replication in the male lungs was negatively associated with testosterone levels.”
The medical community studying COVID-19 has slowly come to recognize the importance of adipose tissue, or fat cells. They are known to express abundant levels of CYP19A1 and play a significant role as metabolic tissue in COVID-19. Gabriel adds, “One of the key findings of our study is that upon SARS-CoV-2 infection, the lung suddenly turns into a metabolic organ by highly expressing” CYP19A1.
She also found evidence that SARS-CoV-2 can infect the gonads of hamsters, thereby likely depressing circulating levels of sex hormones. The researchers did not have autopsy samples to confirm this in humans, but others have shown that the virus can replicate in those tissues.
A possible treatment
Back in the lab, substituting low and high doses of testosterone in SARS-COV-2 infected male hamsters had opposite effects depending on testosterone dosage used. Gabriel says that hormone levels can vary so much, depending on health status and age and even may change throughout the day, that “it probably is much better to inhibit the enzyme” produced by CYP19A1 than try to balance the hormones.
Results were better with letrozole, a drug approved to treat hypogonadism in males, which reduces estradiol levels. The drug also showed benefit in male hamsters in terms of less severe disease and faster recovery. She says more details need to be worked out in using letrozole to treat COVID-19, but they are talking with hospitals about clinical trials of the drug.
Gabriel has proposed a four hit explanation of how COVID-19 can be so deadly for men: the metabolic quartet. First is the genetic risk factor of CYP19A1 (Thr201Met), then comes SARS-CoV-2 infection that induces even greater expression of this gene and the deleterious increase of estradiol in the lung. Age-related hypogonadism and the heightened inflammation of obesity, known to affect CYP19A1 activity, are contributing factors in this deadly perfect storm of events.
Studying host genetics, says Gabriel, can reveal new mechanisms that yield promising avenues for further study. It’s also uniting different fields of science into a new, collaborative approach they’re calling “infection endocrinology,” she says.