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."
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.