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."
When David M. Kurtz was doing his clinical fellowship at Stanford University Medical Center in 2009, specializing in lymphoma treatments, he found himself grappling with a question no one could answer. A typical regimen for these blood cancers prescribed six cycles of chemotherapy, but no one knew why. "The number seemed to be drawn out of a hat," Kurtz says. Some patients felt much better after just two doses, but had to endure the toxic effects of the entire course. For some elderly patients, the side effects of chemo are so harsh, they alone can kill. Others appeared to be cancer-free on the CT scans after the requisite six but then succumbed to it months later.
"Anecdotally, one patient decided to stop therapy after one dose because he felt it was so toxic that he opted for hospice instead," says Kurtz, now an oncologist at the center. "Five years down the road, he was alive and well. For him, just one dose was enough." Others would return for their one-year check up and find that their tumors grew back. Kurtz felt that while CT scans and MRIs were powerful tools, they weren't perfect ones. They couldn't tell him if there were any cancer cells left, stealthily waiting to germinate again. The scans only showed the tumor once it was back.
Blood cancers claim about 68,000 people a year, with a new diagnosis made about every three minutes, according to the Leukemia Research Foundation. For patients with B-cell lymphoma, which Kurtz focuses on, the survival chances are better than for some others. About 60 percent are cured, but the remaining 40 percent will relapse—possibly because they will have a negative CT scan, but still harbor malignant cells. "You can't see this on imaging," says Michael Green, who also treats blood cancers at University of Texas MD Anderson Medical Center.
The new blood test is sensitive enough to spot one cancerous perpetrator amongst one million other DNA molecules.
Kurtz wanted a better diagnostic tool, so he started working on a blood test that could capture the circulating tumor DNA or ctDNA. For that, he needed to identify the specific mutations typical for B-cell lymphomas. Working together with another fellow PhD student Jake Chabon, Kurtz finally zeroed-in on the tumor's genetic "appearance" in 2017—a pair of specific mutations sitting in close proximity to each other—a rare and telling sign. The human genome contains about 3 billion base pairs of nucleotides—molecules that compose genes—and in case of the B-cell lymphoma cells these two mutations were only a few base pairs apart. "That was the moment when the light bulb went on," Kurtz says.
The duo formed a company named Foresight Diagnostics, focusing on taking the blood test to the clinic. But knowing the tumor's mutational signature was only half the process. The other was fishing the tumor's DNA out of patients' bloodstream that contains millions of other DNA molecules, explains Chabon, now Foresight's CEO. It would be like looking for an escaped criminal in a large crowd. Kurtz and Chabon solved the problem by taking the tumor's "mug shot" first. Doctors would take the biopsy pre-treatment and sequence the tumor, as if taking the criminal's photo. After treatments, they would match the "mug shot" to all DNA molecules derived from the patient's blood sample to see if any molecular criminals managed to escape the chemo.
Foresight isn't the only company working on blood-based tumor detection tests, which are dubbed liquid biopsies—other companies such as Natera or ArcherDx developed their own. But in a recent study, the Foresight team showed that their method is significantly more sensitive in "fishing out" the cancer molecules than existing tests. Chabon says that this test can detect circulating tumor DNA in concentrations that are nearly 100 times lower than other methods. Put another way, it's sensitive enough to spot one cancerous perpetrator amongst one million other DNA molecules.
"It increases the sensitivity of detection and really catches most patients who are going to progress," says Green, the University of Texas oncologist who wasn't involved in the study, but is familiar with the method. It would also allow monitoring patients during treatment and making better-informed decisions about which therapy regimens would be most effective. "It's a minimally invasive test," Green says, and "it gives you a very high confidence about what's going on."
Having shown that the test works well, Kurtz and Chabon are planning a new trial in which oncologists would rely on their method to decide when to stop or continue chemo. They also aim to extend their test to detect other malignancies such as lung, breast or colorectal cancers. The latest genome sequencing technologies have sequenced and catalogued over 2,500 different tumor specimens and the Foresight team is analyzing this data, says Chabon, which gives the team the opportunity to create more molecular "mug shots."
The team hopes that that their blood cancer test will become available to patients within about five years, making doctors' job easier, and not only at the biological level. "When I tell patients, "good news, your cancer is in remission', they ask me, 'does it mean I'm cured?'" Kurtz says. "Right now I can't answer this question because I don't know—but I would like to." His company's test, he hopes, will enable him to reply with certainty. He'd very much like to have the power of that foresight.
The white two-seater car that rolls down the street in the Sorrento Valley of San Diego looks like a futuristic batmobile, with its long aerodynamic tail and curved underbelly. Called 'Sol' (Spanish for "sun"), it runs solely on solar and could be the future of green cars. Its maker, the California startup Aptera, has announced the production of Sol, the world's first mass-produced solar vehicle, by the end of this year. Aptera co-founder Chris Anthony points to the sky as he says, "On this sunny California day, there is ample fuel. You never need to charge the car."
If you live in a sunny state like California or Florida, you might never need to plug in the streamlined Sol because the solar panels recharge while driving and parked. Its 60-mile range is more than the average commuter needs. For cloudy weather, battery packs can be recharged electronically for a range of up to 1,000 miles. The ultra-aerodynamic shape made of lightweight materials such as carbon, Kevlar, and hemp makes the Sol four times more energy-efficient than a Tesla, according to Aptera. "The material is seven times stronger than steel and even survives hail or an angry ex-girlfriend," Anthony promises.
Co-founder Steve Fambro opens the Sol's white doors that fly upwards like wings and I get inside for a test drive. Two dozen square solar panels, each the size of a large square coaster, on the roof, front, and tail power the car. The white interior is spartan; monitors have replaced mirrors and the dashboard. An engineer sits in the driver's seat, hits the pedal, and the low-drag two-seater zooms from 0 to 60 in 3.5 seconds.
It feels like sitting in a race car because the two-seater is so low to the ground but the car is built to go no faster than 100 or 110 mph. The finished car will weigh less than 1,800 pounds, about half of the smallest Tesla. The average car, by comparison, weighs more than double that. "We've built it primarily for energy efficiency," Steve Fambro says, explaining why the Sol has only three wheels. It's technically an "auto-cycle," a hybrid between a motorcycle and a car, but Aptera's designers are also working to design a four-seater.
There has never been a lack of grand visions for the future of the automobile, but until these solar cars actually hit the streets, nobody knows how the promises will hold up.
Transportation is currently the biggest source of greenhouse gases. Developing an efficient solar car that does not burden the grid has been the dream of innovators for decades. Every other year, dozens of innovators race their self-built solar cars 2,000 miles through the Australian desert.
More effective solar panels are finally making the dream mass-compatible, but just like other innovative car ideas, Aptera's vision has been plagued with money problems. Anthony and Fambro were part of the original crew that founded Aptera in 2006 and worked on the first prototype around the same time Tesla built its first roadster, but Aptera went bankrupt in 2011. Anthony and Fambro left a year before the bankruptcy and went on to start other companies. Among other projects, Fambro developed the first USDA organic vertical farm in the United Arab Emirates, and Anthony built a lithium battery company, before the two decided to buy Aptera back. Without a billionaire such as Elon Musk bankrolling the risky process of establishing a whole new car production system from scratch, the huge production costs are almost insurmountable.
But Aptera's founders believe they have found solutions for the entire production process as well as the car design. Most parts of the Sol's body can be made by 3D printers and assembled like a Lego kit. If this makes you think of a toy car, Anthony assures potential buyers that the car aced stress tests and claims it's safer than any vehicle on the market, "because the interior is shaped like an egg and if there is an impact, the pressure gets distributed equally." However, Aptera has yet to release crash test safety data so outside experts cannot evaluate their claims.
Instead of building a huge production facility, Anthony and Fambro envision "micro-factories," each less than 10,000 square feet, where a small crew can assemble cars on demand wherever the orders are highest, be it in California, Canada, or China.
If a part of the Sol breaks, Aptera promises to send replacement parts to any corner of the world within 24 hours, with instructions. So a mechanic in a rural corner in Arkansas or China who never worked on a solar car before simply needs to download the instructions and replace the broken part. At least that's the idea. "The material does not rust nor fatigue," Fambro promises. "You can pass the car onto your grandchildren. When more efficient solar panels hit the market, we simply replace them."
More than 11,000 potential buyers have already signed up; the cheapest model costs around $26,000 USD and Aptera expects the first cars to ship by the end of the year.
Two other solar carmakers are vying for the pole position in the race to be the first to market: The German startup Sono has also announced it will also produce its first solar car by the end of this year. The price tag for the basic model is also around $26,000, but its concept is very different. From the outside, the Sion looks like a conservative minivan for a family; only a closer look reveals that the dark exterior is made of solar panels. Sono, too, nearly went bankrupt a few years ago and was saved through a crowdfunding campaign by enthusiastic fans.
Meanwhile, Norwegian company Lightyear wants to produce a sleek solar-powered luxury sedan by the end of the year, but its price of around $180,000 makes it unaffordable for most buyers.
There has never been a lack of grand visions for the future of the automobile, but until these solar cars actually hit the streets, nobody knows how the promises will hold up. How often will the cars need to be repaired? What happens when snow and ice cover the solar panels? Also, you can't park the car in a garage if you need the sun to charge it.
Critics, including students at the Solar Car team at the University of Michigan, say that mounting solar panels on a moving vehicle will never yield the most efficient results compared to static panels. Also, they are quick to point out that no company has managed to overcome the production hurdles yet. Others in the field also wonder how well the solar panels will actually work.
"It's important to realize that the solar mileage claims by these companies are likely the theoretical best case scenario but in the real world, solar range will be significantly less when you factor in shading, parking in garages, and geographies with lower solar irradiance," says Evan Stumpges, the team coordinator for the American Solar Challenge, a competition in which enthusiasts build and race solar-powered cars. "The encouraging thing is that I have seen videos of real working prototypes for each of these vehicles which is a key accomplishment. That said, I believe the biggest hurdle these companies have yet to face is successfully ramping up to volume production and understanding what their profitability point will be for selling the vehicles once production has stabilized."
Professor Daniel M. Kammen, the founding director of the Renewable and Appropriate Energy Laboratory at the University of California, Berkeley, and one of the world's foremost experts on renewable energy, believes that the technical challenges have been solved, and that solar cars have real advantages over electric vehicles.
"This is the right time to be bullish. Cutting out the charging is a natural solution for long rides," he says. "These vehicles are essentially solar panels and batteries on wheels. These are now record low-cost and can be built from sustainable materials." Apart from Aptera's no-charge technology, he appreciates the move toward no-conflict materials. "Not only is the time ripe but the youth movement is pushing toward conflict-free material and reducing resource waste....A low-cost solar fleet could be really interesting in relieving burden on the grid, or you could easily imagine a city buying a bunch of them and connecting them with mass transit." While he has followed all three new solar companies with interest, he has already ordered an Aptera car for himself, "because it's American and it looks the most different."
After taking a spin in the Sol, it is startling to switch back into a regular four-seater. Rolling out of Aptera's parking lot onto the freeway next to all the oversized gas guzzlers that need to stop every couple of hundreds of miles to fill up, one can't help but think: We've just taken a trip into the future.