More than 114,000 men, women, and children are awaiting organ transplants in the United States. Each day, 22 of them die waiting. To address this shortage, researchers are working hard to grow organs on-demand, using the patient's own cells, to eliminate the need to find a perfectly matched donor.
"The next step is to transplant these cells into a larger animal that will produce an organ that is the right size for a human."
But creating full-size replacement organs in a lab is still decades away. So some scientists are experimenting with the boundaries of nature and life itself: using other mammals to grow human cells. Earlier this year, this line of investigation took a big step forward when scientists announced they had grown sheep embryos that contained human cells.
Dr. Pablo Ross, an associate professor at the University of California, Davis, along with a team of colleagues, introduced human stem cells into the sheep embryos at a very early stage of their development and found that one in every 10,000 cells in the embryo were human. It was an improvement over their prior experiment, using a pig embryo, when they found that one in every 100,000 cells in the pig were human. The resulting chimera, as the embryo is called, is only allowed to develop for 28 days. Leapsmag contributor Caren Chesler recently spoke with Ross about his research. Their interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Your goal is to one day grow human organs in animals, for organ transplantation. What does your research entail?
We're transplanting stem cells from a person into an animal embryo, at about day three to five of embryo development.
This concept has already been shown to work between mice and rats. You can grow a mouse pancreas inside a rat, or you can grow a rat pancreas inside a mouse.
For this approach to work for humans, the next step is to transplant these cells into a larger animal that will produce an organ that is the right size for a human. That's why we chose to start some of this preliminary work using pigs and sheep. Adult pigs and adult sheep have organs that are of similar size to an adult human. Pigs and sheep also grow really fast, so they can grow from a single cell at the time of fertilization to human adult size -- about 200 pounds -- in only nine to 10 months. That's better than the average waiting time for an organ transplant.
"You don't want the cells to confer any human characteristics in the animal....Too many cells, that may be a problem, because we do not know what that threshold is."
So how do you get the animal to grow the human organ you want?
First, we need to generate the animal without its own organ. We can generate sheep or pigs that will not grow their own pancreases. Those animals can then be used as hosts for human pancreas generation.
For the approach to work, we need the human stem cells to be able to integrate into the embryo and to contribute to its tissues. What we've been doing with pigs, and more recently, in sheep, is testing different types of stem cells, and introducing them into an early embryo between three to five days of development. We then transfer that embryo to a surrogate female and then harvest the embryos back at day 28 of development, at which point most of the organs are pre-formed.
The human cells will contribute to every organ. But in trying to do that, they will compete with the host organism. Since this is happening inside a pig embryo, which is inside a pig foster mother, the pig cells will win that competition for every organ.
Because you're not putting in enough human cells?
No, because it's a pig environment. Everything is pig. The host, basically, is in control. That's what we see when we do rat mice, or mouse rat: the host always wins the battle.
But we need human cells in the early development -- a few, but not too few -- so that when an organ needs to form, like a pancreas (which develops at around day 25), the pig cells will not respond to that, but if there are human cells in that location, [those human cells] can respond to pancreas formation.
From the work in mice and rats, we know we need some kind of global contribution across multiple tissues -- even a 1% contribution will be sufficient. But if the cells are not there, then they're not going to contribute to that organ. The way we target the specific organ is by removing the competition for that organ.
So if you want it to grow a pancreas, you use an embryo that is not going to grow a pancreas of its own. But you can't control where the other cells go. For instance, you don't want them going to the animal's brain – or its gonads –right?
You don't want the cells to confer any human characteristics in the animal. But even if cells go to the brain, it's not going to confer on the animal human characteristics. A few human cells, even if they're in the brain, won't make it a human brain. Too many cells, that may be a problem, because we do not know what that threshold is.
The objective of our research right now is to look at just 28 days of embryonic development and evaluate what's going on: Are the human cells there? How many? Do they go to the brain? If so, how many? Is this a problem, or is it not a problem? If we find that too many human cells go to the brain, that will probably mean that we wouldn't continue with this approach. At this point, we're not controlling it; we're analyzing it.
"By keeping our research in a very early stage of development, we're not creating a human or a humanoid or anything in between."
What other ethical concerns have arisen?
Conferring human properties to the organism, that is a major concern. I wouldn't like to be involved in that, and so that's what we're trying to assess. By keeping our research in a very early stage of development, we're not creating a human or a humanoid or anything in between.
What specifically sets off the ethical alarms? An animal developing human traits?
Animals developing human characteristics goes beyond what would be considered acceptable. I share that concern. But so far, what we have observed, primarily in rats and mice, is that the host animal dictates development. When you put mouse cells into a rat -- and they're so closely related, sometimes the mouse cells contribute to about 30 percent of the cells in the animal -- the outcome is still a rat. It's the size of a rat. It's the shape of the rat. It has the organ sizes of a rat. Even when the pancreas is fully made out of mouse cells, the pancreas is rat-sized because it grew inside the rat.
This happens even with an organ that is not shared, like a gallbladder, which mice have but rats do not. If you put cells from a mouse into a rat, it never grows a gallbladder. And if you put rat cells into the mouse, the rat cells can end up in the gallbladder even though those rat cells would never have made a gallbladder in a rat.
That means the cell structure is following the directions of the embryo, in terms of how they're going to form and what they're going to make. Based on those observations, if you put human cells into a sheep, we are going to get a sheep with human cells. The organs, the pancreas, in our case, will be the size and shape of the sheep pancreas, but it will be loaded with human cells identical to those of the patient that provided the cells used to generate the stem cells.
But, yeah, if by doing this, the animal acquires the functional or anatomical characteristics associated with a human, it would not be acceptable for me.
So you think these concerns are justified?
Absolutely. They need to be considered. But sometimes by raising these concerns, we prevent technologies from being developed. We need to consider the concerns, but we must evaluate them fully, to determine if they are scientifically justified. Because while we must consider the ethics of doing this, we also need to consider the ethics of not doing it. Every day, 22 people in the US die because they don't receive the organ they need to survive. This shortage is not going to be solved by donations, alone. That's clear. And when people die of old age, their organs are not good anymore.
Since organ transplantation has been so successful, the number of people needing organs has just been growing. The number of organs available has also grown but at a much slower pace. We need to find an alternative, and I think growing the organs in animals is one of those alternatives.
Right now, there's a moratorium on National Institutes of Health funding?
Yes. It's only one agency, but it happens to be the largest biomedical funding source. We have public funding for this work from the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine, and one of my colleagues has funding from the Department of Defense.
"I can say, without NIH funding, it's not going to happen here. It may happen in other places, like China."
Can we put the moratorium in context? How much research in the U.S. is funded by the NIH?
Probably more than 75 percent.
So what kind of impact would lifting that ban have on speeding up possible treatments for those who need a new organ?
Oh, I think it would have a huge impact. The moratorium not only prevents people from seeking funding to advance this area of research, it influences other sources of funding, who think, well, if the NIH isn't doing it, why are we going to do it? It hinders progress.
So with the ban, how long until we can really have organs growing in animals? I've heard five or 10 years.
With or without the ban, I don't think I can give you an accurate estimate.
What we know so far is that human cells don't contribute a lot to the animal embryo. We don't know exactly why. We have a lot of good ideas about things we can test, but we can't move forward right now because we don't have funding -- or we're moving forward but very slowly. We're really just scratching the surface in terms of developing these technologies.
We still need that one major leap in our understanding of how different species interact, and how human cells participate in the development of other species. I cannot predict when we're going to reach that point. I can say, without NIH funding, it's not going to happen here. It may happen in other places, like China, but without NIH funding, it's not going to happen in the U.S.
I think it's important to mention that this is in a very early stage of development and it should not be presented to people who need an organ as something that is possible right now. It's not fair to give false hope to people who are desperate.
So the five to 10 year figure is not realistic.
I think it will take longer than that. If we had a drug right now that we knew could stop heart attacks, it could take five to 10 years just to get it to market. With this, you're talking about a much more complex system. I would say 20 to 25 years. Maybe.
Elaine Kamil had just returned home after a few days of business meetings in 2013 when she started having chest pains. At first Kamil, then 66, wasn't worried—she had had some chest pain before and recently went to a cardiologist to do a stress test, which was normal.
"I can't be having a heart attack because I just got checked," she thought, attributing the discomfort to stress and high demands of her job. A pediatric nephrologist at Cedars-Sinai Hospital in Los Angeles, she takes care of critically ill children who are on dialysis or are kidney transplant patients. Supporting families through difficult times and answering calls at odd hours is part of her daily routine, and often leaves her exhausted.
She figured the pain would go away. But instead, it intensified that night. Kamil's husband drove her to the Cedars-Sinai hospital, where she was admitted to the coronary care unit. It turned out she wasn't having a heart attack after all. Instead, she was diagnosed with a much less common but nonetheless dangerous heart condition called takotsubo syndrome, or broken heart syndrome.
A heart attack happens when blood flow to the heart is obstructed—such as when an artery is blocked—causing heart muscle tissue to die. In takotsubo syndrome, the blood flow isn't blocked, but the heart doesn't pump it properly. The heart changes its shape and starts to resemble a Japanese fishing device called tako-tsubo, a clay pot with a wider body and narrower mouth, used to catch octopus.
"The heart muscle is stunned and doesn't function properly anywhere from three days to three weeks," explains Noel Bairey Merz, the cardiologist at Cedar Sinai who Kamil went to see after she was discharged.
"The heart muscle is stunned and doesn't function properly anywhere from three days to three weeks."
But even though the heart isn't permanently damaged, mortality rates due to takotsubo syndrome are comparable to those of a heart attack, Merz notes—about 4-5% of patients die from the attack, and 20% within the next five years. "It's as bad as a heart attack," Merz says—only it's much less known, even to doctors. The condition affects only about 1% of people, and there are around 15,000 new cases annually. It's diagnosed using a cardiac ventriculogram, an imaging test that allows doctors to see how the heart pumps blood.
Scientists don't fully understand what causes Takotsubo syndrome, but it usually occurs after extreme emotional or physical stress. Doctors think it's triggered by a so-called catecholamine storm, a phenomenon in which the body releases too much catecholamines—hormones involved in the fight-or-flight response. Evolutionarily, when early humans lived in savannas or forests and had to either fight off predators or flee from them, these hormones gave our ancestors the needed strength and stamina to take either action. Released by nerve endings and by the adrenal glands that sit on top of the kidneys, these hormones still flood our bodies in moments of stress, but an overabundance of them could sometimes be damaging.
A recent study by scientists at Harvard Medical School linked increased risk of takotsubo to higher activity in the amygdala, a brain region responsible for emotions that's involved in responses to stress. The scientists believe that chronic stress makes people more susceptible to the syndrome. Notably, one small study suggested that the number of Takotsubo cases increased during the COVID-19 pandemic.
There are no specific drugs to treat takotsubo, so doctors rely on supportive therapies, which include medications typically used for high blood pressure and heart failure. In most cases, the heart returns to its normal shape within a few weeks. "It's a spontaneous recovery—the catecholamine storm is resolved, the injury trigger is removed and the heart heals itself because our bodies have an amazing healing capacity," Merz says. It also helps that tissues remain intact. 'The heart cells don't die, they just aren't functioning properly for some time."
That's the good news. The bad news is that takotsubo is likely to strike again—in 5-20% of patients the condition comes back, sometimes more severe than before.
That's exactly what happened to Kamil. After getting her diagnosis in 2013, she realized that she actually had a previous takotsubo episode. In 2010, she experienced similar symptoms after her son died. "The night after he died, I was having severe chest pain at night, but I was too overwhelmed with grief to do anything about it," she recalls. After a while, the pain subsided and didn't return until three years later.
For weeks after her second attack, she felt exhausted, listless and anxious. "You lose confidence in your body," she says. "You have these little twinges on your chest, or if you start having arrhythmia, and you wonder if this is another episode coming up. It's really unnerving because you don't know how to read these cues." And that's very typical, Merz says. Even when the heart muscle appears to recover, patients don't return to normal right away. They have shortens of breath, they can't exercise, and they stay anxious and worried for a while.
Women over the age of 50 are diagnosed with takotsubo more often than other demographics. However, it happens in men too, although it typically strikes after physical stress, such as a triathlon or an exhausting day of cycling. Young people can also get takotsubo. Older patients are hospitalized more often, but younger people tend to have more severe complications. It could be because an older person may go for a jog while younger one may run a marathon, which would take a stronger toll on the body of a person who's predisposed to the condition.
Notably, the emotional stressors don't always have to be negative—the heart muscle can get out of shape from good emotions, too. "There have been case reports of takotsubo at weddings," Merz says. Moreover, one out of three or four takotsubo patients experience no apparent stress, she adds. "So it could be that it's not so much the catecholamine storm itself, but the body's reaction to it—the physiological reaction deeply embedded into out physiology," she explains.
Merz and her team are working to understand what makes people predisposed to takotsubo. They think a person's genetics play a role, but they haven't yet pinpointed genes that seem to be responsible. Genes code for proteins, which affect how the body metabolizes various compounds, which, in turn, affect the body's response to stress. Pinning down the protein involved in takotsubo susceptibility would allow doctors to develop screening tests and identify those prone to severe repeating attacks. It will also help develop medications that can either prevent it or treat it better than just waiting for the body to heal itself.
Researchers at the Imperial College London recently found that elevated levels of certain types of microRNAs—molecules involved in protein production—increase the chances of developing takotsubo.
In one study, researchers tried treating takotsubo in mice with a drug called suberanilohydroxamic acid, or SAHA, typically used for cancer treatment. The drug improved cardiac health and reversed the broken heart in rodents. It remains to be seen if the drug would have a similar effect on humans. But identifying a drug that shows promise is progress, Merz says. "I'm glad that there's research in this area."
A highly contagious form of the coronavirus known as the Delta variant is spreading rapidly and becoming increasingly prevalent around the world. First identified in India in December, Delta has now been identified in 111 countries.
In the United States, the variant now accounts for 83% of sequenced COVID-19 cases, said Rochelle Walensky, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, at a July 20 Senate hearing. In May, Delta was responsible for just 3% of U.S. cases. The World Health Organization projects that Delta will become the dominant variant globally over the coming months.
So, how worried should you be about the Delta variant? We asked experts some common questions about Delta.
What is a variant?
To understand Delta, it's helpful to first understand what a variant is. When a virus infects a person, it gets into your cells and makes a copy of its genome so it can replicate and spread throughout your body.
In the process of making new copies of itself, the virus can make a mistake in its genetic code. Because viruses are replicating all the time, these mistakes — also called mutations — happen pretty often. A new variant emerges when a virus acquires one or more new mutations and starts spreading within a population.
There are thousands of SARS-CoV-2 variants, but most of them don't substantially change the way the virus behaves. The variants that scientists are most interested in are known as variants of concern. These are versions of the virus with mutations that allow the virus to spread more easily, evade vaccines, or cause more severe disease.
"The vast majority of the mutations that have accumulated in SARS-CoV-2 don't change the biology as far as we're concerned," said Jennifer Surtees, a biochemist at the University of Buffalo who's studying the coronavirus. "But there have been a handful of key mutations and combinations of mutations that have led to what we're now calling variants of concern."
One of those variants of concern is Delta, which is now driving many new COVID-19 infections.
Why is the Delta variant so concerning?
"The reason why the Delta variant is concerning is because it's causing an increase in transmission," said Alba Grifoni, an infectious disease researcher at the La Jolla Institute for Immunology. "The virus is spreading faster and people — particularly those who are not vaccinated yet — are more prone to exposure."
The Delta variant has a few key mutations that make it better at attaching to our cells and evading the neutralizing antibodies in our immune system. These mutations have changed the virus enough to make it more than twice as contagious as the original SARS-CoV-2 virus that emerged in Wuhan and about 50% more contagious than the Alpha variant, previously known as B.1.1.7, or the U.K. variant.
These mutations were previously seen in other variants on their own, but it's their combination that makes Delta so much more infectious.
Do vaccines work against the Delta variant?
The good news is, the COVID-19 vaccines made by AstraZeneca, Johnson & Johnson, Moderna, and Pfizer still work against the Delta variant. They remain more than 90% effective at preventing hospitalizations and death due to Delta. While they're slightly less protective against disease symptoms, they're still very effective at preventing severe illness caused by the Delta variant.
"They're not as good as they were against the prior strains, but they're holding up pretty well," said Eric Topol, a physician and director of the Scripps Translational Research Institute, during a July 19 briefing for journalists.
Because Delta is better at evading our immune systems, it's likely causing more breakthrough infections — COVID-19 cases in people who are vaccinated. However, breakthrough infections were expected before the Delta variant became widespread. No vaccine is 100% effective, so breakthrough infections can happen with other vaccines as well. Experts say the COVID-19 vaccines are still working as expected, even if breakthrough infections occur. The majority of these infections are asymptomatic or cause only mild symptoms.
Should vaccinated people worry about the Delta variant?
Vaccines train our immune systems to protect us against infection. They do this by spurring the production of antibodies, which stick around in our bodies to help fight off a particular pathogen in case we ever come into contact with it.
But even if the new Delta variant slips past our neutralizing antibodies, there's another component of our immune system that can help overtake the virus: T cells. Studies are showing that the COVID-19 vaccines also galvanize T cells, which help limit disease severity in people who have been vaccinated.
"While antibodies block the virus and prevent the virus from infecting cells, T cells are able to attack cells that have already been infected," Grifoni said. In other words, T cells can prevent the infection from spreading to more places in the body. A study published July 1 by Grifoni and her colleagues found that T cells were still able to recognize mutated forms of the virus — further evidence that our current vaccines are effective against Delta.
Can fully vaccinated people spread the Delta variant?
Scientists think it's unlikely that fully vaccinated individuals who have an asymptomatic infection are transmitting the Delta variant. That's because vaccinated people are thought to have relatively low levels of the virus in their respiratory tracts and therefore, they don't transmit as much virus.
Still, breakthrough infections can occur. If you have COVID-19 symptoms, even if you're fully vaccinated, you should get tested and isolate from friends and family because you could spread the virus.
What risk does Delta pose to unvaccinated people?
The Delta variant is behind a surge in cases in communities with low vaccination rates, and unvaccinated Americans currently account for 97% of hospitalizations due to COVID-19, according to Walensky. The best thing you can do right now to prevent yourself from getting sick is to get vaccinated.
Gigi Gronvall, an immunologist and senior scholar at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security, said in this week's "Making Sense of Science" podcast that it's especially important to get all required doses of the vaccine in order to have the best protection against the Delta variant. "Even if it's been more than the allotted time that you were told to come back and get the second, there's no time like the present," she said.
With more than 3.6 billion COVID-19 doses administered globally, the vaccines have been shown to be incredibly safe. Serious adverse effects are rare, although scientists continue to monitor for them.
Being vaccinated also helps prevent the emergence of new and potentially more dangerous variants. Viruses need to infect people in order to replicate, and variants emerge because the virus continues to infect more people. More infections create more opportunities for the virus to acquire new mutations.
Surtees and others worry about a scenario in which a new variant emerges that's even more transmissible or resistant to vaccines. "This is our window of opportunity to try to get as many people vaccinated as possible and get people protected so that so that the virus doesn't evolve to be even better at infecting people," she said.
Does Delta cause more severe disease?
While hospitalizations and deaths from COVID-19 are increasing again, it's not yet clear whether Delta causes more severe illness than previous strains.
How can we protect unvaccinated children from the Delta variant?
With children 12 and under not yet eligible for the COVID-19 vaccine, kids are especially vulnerable to the Delta variant. One way to protect unvaccinated children is for parents and other close family members to get vaccinated.
It's also a good idea to keep masks handy when going out in public places. Due to risk Delta poses, the American Academy of Pediatrics issued new guidelines July 19 recommending that all staff and students over age 2 wear face masks in school this fall, even if they have been vaccinated.
Parents should also avoid taking their unvaccinated children to crowded, indoor locations and make sure their kids are practicing good hand-washing hygiene. For children younger than 2, limit visits with friends and family members who are unvaccinated or whose vaccination status is unknown and keep up social distancing practices while in public.
While there's no evidence yet that Delta increases disease severity in children, parents should be mindful that in some rare cases, kids can get a severe form of the disease.
"We're seeing more children getting sick and we're seeing some of them get very sick," Surtees said. "Those children can then pass on the virus to other individuals, including people who are immunocompromised or unvaccinated."