The first successful recipient of a human heart transplant lived 18 days. The first artificial heart recipient lived just over 100.
Their brief post-transplant lives paved the way toward vastly greater successes. Former Vice President Dick Cheney relied on an artificial heart for nearly two years before receiving a human heart transplant. It still beats in his chest more than a decade later.
Organ transplantation recently reached its next phase with David Bennett. He survived for two months after becoming the first recipient of a pig’s heart genetically modified to function in a human body in February. Known as a xenotransplant, the procedure could pave the way for greatly expanding the use of transplanted vital organs to extend human lives.
Clinical trials would have to be held in the U.S. before xenotransplants become widespread; Bennett’s surgery was authorized under a special Food and Drug Administration program that addresses patients with life-threatening medical conditions.
German researchers plan to perform eight pig-to-human heart transplants as part of a clinical trial beginning in 2024. According to an email sent to Leaps.org by three scholars working on the German project, these procedures will focus on one of the reasons David Bennett did not survive longer: A porcine infection from his new heart.
The transplant team will conduct more sensitive testing of the donor organs, “which in all likelihood will be able to detect even low levels of virus in the xenograft,” note the scientists, Katharina Ebner, Jochen Ostheimer and Jochen Sautermeister. They are confident that the risk of infection with a porcine virus in the future will be significantly lower.
Moreover, hearts are not the only genetically modified organs that are being xenotransplanted. A team of surgeons at the University of Alabama at Birmingham successfully transplanted genetically modified pig kidneys into a brain-dead human recipient in September. The kidneys functioned normally for more than three days before the experiment ended. The UAB team is now moving forward with clinical trials focusing on transplanting pig kidneys into human patients.
Some experts believe the momentum for xenotransplantation is building, particularly given the recent successes. “I think there is a strong likelihood this will go mainstream,” says Brendan Parent of NYU Langone Health.
Douglas Anderson, a surgeon who is part of that kidney xenotransplant team, observes that, “organ shortages have been the major issue facing transplantation since its inception” and that xenotransplantation is a potential solution to that quandary. “It can’t be understated the number of people waiting for a kidney on dialysis, which has a significant mortality rate,” he says. According to the advocacy group Donate Life America, more than 100,000 people in the U.S. alone are waiting for a donated organ, and 85 percent of them need a kidney.
Other experts believe the momentum for xenotransplantation is building, particularly given the recent successes. “I think there is a strong likelihood this will go mainstream,” says Brendan Parent, director of transplant ethics and policy at NYU Langone Health, a New York City-based hospital system. Like the UAB team, surgeons at NYU Langone have had success coaxing modified pig kidneys to work in deceased humans.
“There is a genuinely good chance that within a generation, (xenotransplantation) might become very common in reasonably wealthy countries,” says Michael Reiss, professor of science education at University College in London. In addition to his academic position, Reiss sits on the Nuffield Council on Bioethics, a nonprofit that is one of Britain’s most prominent watchdogs regarding medical and scientific issues. Reiss is also an Anglican priest and has studied xenotransplantation from both a scientific and religious point of view.
Moreover, genetic modifications could one day lead to organs being specifically optimized for their recipients. That could ensure issues like donor rejection and the calculated risk of artificially suppressing recipient immune systems become concerns of the past.
Major bioethical, religious concerns
Despite the promise of xenotransplantation, numerous bioethical issues swirl around the procedure. They could be magnified if xenotransplantation evolves from one-off experiments to a routine medical procedure.
One of the biggest is the millennia-long prohibitions Islam and Judaism have had regarding the consumption of pork. Will followers of these religions assume such rules extend to those taboo materials being inserted into a human body?
“Initially, one’s instinctual reaction is that, oh, crumbs! – how are Jews and Muslims going to react to that?” Reiss says. But in a world where science and secularism are accepted on an everyday basis, he notes it is not a significant issue. Reiss points out that valves from pig hearts have been used in human patients for decades without any issues. He adds that both Islam and Judaism waive religious dietary restrictions if a human life is at risk.
“While nobody's saying an individual patient is to be forced to have these, the very high proportion of people who identify as Jews or Muslims when given this option are content with it,” he says.
Concurring with Reiss is Michael Gusamano, professor of health policy at Lehigh University and director of its Center for Ethics. He is currently performing research on the ethics of xenotransplantation for the National Institutes of Health.
“Leaders from all major religions have commented on this and have indicated that this is not inconsistent with religious doctrine,” Gusamano says in written remarks to Leaps.org. “Having said that, it is plausible to believe that some people will assume that this is inconsistent with the teaching of their religion and may object to…receiving a xenotransplant as part of routine medical care.”
A history of clashes
Despite those assurances, science has long clashed with theology. Although Galileo proved the planets revolved around the sun, the Catholic Church found him guilty of heresy and rewarded his discovery with house arrest for the last decade of his life. A revolt occurred in mid-19th century India after native-born soldiers believed the ammunition supplied by their British occupiers had been lubricated with pork and beef tallow. Given they had to use their mouths to tear open ammunition pouches, this violated both the tenets of Islam and Hinduism. And one of the conspiracy theories hatched as a result of COVID-19 was that the vaccines developed to fight the disease were the “mark of the beast” – a sign of impending Armageddon under evangelical Christian theology.
The German xenotransplant research team has encountered such potential concerns when the procedure is regarded through a religious lens. “The pastors in our research suspected that many recipients might feel disgust and revulsion,” they write. “Even beyond these special religious reservations, cultural scripts about pigs as inferior living beings are also generally widespread and effective in the western world, so that here too possible disgust reactions cannot be ruled out.”
The German researchers add that “Jewish and Muslim hospital pastoral workers believe possible considerable problems in this respect, which must be dealt with psychosocially, religiously, and pastorally prior to a possible transplantation in order to strengthen the acceptance of the received organ by the patients and their relatives.”
Parent, the director at NYU Langone, shares a concern that xenotransplantation could move “too fast,” although much of his worry is focused on zoonotic disease transmission – pig viruses jumping into humans as a result of such procedures.
Another ethical issue
Moreover, the way pigs and other animals are raised for transplants could pose future ethical dilemmas.
Reiss notes that pigs raised for medical procedures have to be grown and kept in what are known as a designated pathogen-free facility, or DPF. Such facilities are kept painstakingly antiseptic so as to minimize the risk of zoonotic transmissions. But given pigs are fond of outdoor activities such as wallowing in mud and sleeping on hay, they lead “stunningly boring lives” that they probably do not enjoy, Reiss observes.
Ethical concerns with using pigs may push transplantation medicine into its next logical phase: Growing functional organs for transplant in a laboratory setting.
“There’s no doubt that these research pigs have gotten much better veterinary care, et cetera, (compared to farmed pigs). But it’s not a great life,” Reiss says. “And although it hasn’t so far dominated the discussion, I think as the years go by, rather as we’ve seen with the use of apes and now monkeys in medical research, more and more theologians will get uncomfortable about us just assuming we can do this with…pigs.”
The German research team raises the same concerns, but has taken a fairly sanguine view on the topic. “The impairments of the species-typical behavior will certainly provoke criticism and perhaps also public protest. But the number of animals affected is very small in relation to slaughter cattle,” the German researchers note. “Moreover, the conditions there and also in several animal experiments are far worse.”
Observers say that may push transplantation medicine into its next logical phase: Growing functional organs for transplant in a laboratory setting. Anderson, the UAB transplant surgeon, believes such an accomplishment remains decades away.
But other experts believe there is a moral imperative that xenotransplantation remain a temporary solution. “I think we have a duty to go in that direction,” Parent says. “We have to go that way, with the xenotransplantation process (as) a steppingstone and research path that will be useful for bioengineered organs.”
The first thing Jeroen Perk saw after he partially regained his sight nearly a decade ago was the outline of his guide dog Pedro.
“There was a white floor, and the dog was black,” recalls Perk, a 43-year-old investigator for the Dutch customs service. “I was crying. It was a very nice moment.”
Perk was diagnosed with retinitis pigmentosa as a child and had been blind since early adulthood. He has been able to use the implant placed into his retina in 2013 to help identify street crossings, and even ski and pursue archery. A video posted by the company that designed and manufactured the device indicates he’s a good shot.
Less black-and-white has been the journey Perk and others have been on after they were implanted with the Argus II, a second-generation device created by a Los Angeles-based company called Second Sight Medical Devices.
The Argus II uses the implant and a video camera embedded in a special pair of glasses to provide limited vision to those with retinitis pigmentosa, a genetic disease that causes cells in the retina to deteriorate. The camera feeds information to the implant, which sends electrical impulses into the retina to recapitulate what the camera sees. The impulses appear in the Argus II as a 60-pixel grid of blacks, grays and whites in the user’s eye that can render rough outlines of objects and their motion.
Smartphone and computer manufacturers typically stop issuing software upgrades to their devices after two or three years, eventually rendering them bricks. But is the smartphone approach acceptable for a device that helps restore the most crucial sense a human being possesses?
Ross Doerr, a retired disability rights attorney in Maine who received an Argus II in 2019, describes the field of vision as the equivalent of an index card held at arm’s length. Perk often brings objects close to his face to decipher them. Moreover, users must swivel their heads to take in visual data; moving their eyeballs does not work.
Despite its limitations, the Argus II beats the alternative. Perk no longer relies on his guide dog. Doerr was uplifted when he was able to see the outlines of Christmas trees at a holiday show.
“The fairy godmother department sort of reaches out and taps you on the shoulder once in a while,” Doerr says of his implant, which came about purely by chance. A surgeon treating his cataracts was partnered with the son of another surgeon who was implanting the devices, and he was referred.
Doerr had no reason to believe the shower of fairy dust wouldn’t continue. Second Sight held out promises that the Argus II recipients’ vision would gradually improve through upgrades to much higher pixel densities. The ability to recognize individual faces was even touted as a possibility. In the winter of 2020, Doerr was preparing to travel across the U.S. to Second Sight’s headquarters to receive an upgrade. But then COVID-19 descended, and the trip was canceled.
The pandemic also hit Second Sight’s bottom line. Doerr found out about its tribulations only from one of the company’s vision therapists, who told him the entire department was being laid off. Second Sight cut nearly 80% of its workforce in March 2020 and announced it would wind down operations.
Ross Doerr has mostly stopped using his Argus II, the result of combination of fear of losing its assistance from wear and tear and disdain for the company that brought it to market.
Second Sight’s implosion left some 350 Argus recipients in the metaphorical dark about what to do if their implants failed. Skeleton staff seem to have rarely responded to queries from their customers, at least based on the experiences of Perk and Doerr. And some recipients have unfortunately returned to the actual dark as well, as reports have surfaced of Argus II failures due to aging or worn-down parts.
Product support for complex products is remarkably uneven. Although the iconic Ford Mustang ceased production in the late 1960s, its parts market is so robust that it’s theoretically possible to assemble a new vehicle from recently crafted components. Conversely, smartphone and computer manufacturers typically stop issuing software upgrades to their devices after two or three years, eventually rendering them bricks. Consumers have accepted both extremes.
But is the smartphone approach acceptable for a device that helps restore the most crucial sense a human being possesses?
Margaret McLean, a senior fellow at the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics at Santa Clara University in California, notes companies like Second Sight have a greater obligation for product support than other consumer product ventures.
“In this particular case, you have a great deal of risk that is involved in using this device, the implant, and the after care of this device,” she says. “You cannot, like with your car, decide that ‘I don’t like my Mustang anymore,’ and go out and buy a Corvette.”
And, whether the Argus II implant works or not, its physical presence can impact critical medical decisions. Doerr’s doctor wanted him to undergo an MRI to assist in diagnosing attacks of vertigo. But the physician was concerned his implant might interfere. With the latest available manufacturer advisories on his implant nearly a decade old, the procedure was held up. Doerr spent months importuning Second Sight through phone calls, emails and Facebook postings to learn if his implant was contraindicated with MRIs, which he never received. Although the cause of his vertigo was found without an MRI, Doerr was hardly assured.
“Put that into context for a minute. I get into a serious car accident. I end up in the emergency room, and I have a tag saying I have an implanted medical device,” he says. “You can’t do an MRI until you get the proper information from the company. Who’s going to answer the phone?”
Second Sight’s management did answer the call to revamp its business. It netted nearly $78 million through a private stock placement and an initial public offering last year. At the end of 2021, Second Sight had nearly $70 million in cash on hand, according to a recent filing with the Securities and Exchange Commission.
And while the Argus II is still touted at length on Second Sight’s home page, it appears little of its corporate coffers are earmarked toward its support. These days, the company is focused on obtaining federal approvals for Orion, a new implant that would go directly into the recipient’s brain and could be used to remedy blindness from a variety of causes. It obtained a $6.4 million grant from the National Institutes of Health in May 2021 to help develop Orion.
Presented with a list of written questions by email, Second Sight’s spokesperson, Dave Gentry of the investor relations firm Red Chip Companies, copied a subordinate with an abrupt message to “please handle.” That was the only response from a company representative. A call to Second Sight acting chief executive officer Scott Dunbar went unreturned.
Whether or not the Orion succeeds remains to be seen. The company’s SEC filings suggest a viable and FDA-approved device is years away, and that operational losses are expected for the “foreseeable future.” Second Sight reported zero revenue in 2020 or 2021.
Moreover, the experiences of the Argus II recipients could color the reception of future Second Sight products. Doerr notes that his insurer paid nearly $500,000 to implant his device and for training on how to use it.
“What’s the insurance industry going to say the next time this crops up?” Doerr asks, noting that the company’s reputation is “completely shot” with the recipients of its implants.
Perk, who made speeches to praise the Argus II and is still featured in a video on the Second Sight website, says he also no longer supports the company.
Jeroen Perk, an investigator for the Dutch customs service, cried for joy after partially regaining his sight, but he no longer trusts Second Sight, the company that provided his implant.
Nevertheless, Perk remains highly reliant on the technology. When he dropped an external component of his device in late 2020 and it broke, Perk briefly debated whether to remain blind or find a way to get his Argus II working again. Three months later, he was able to revive it by crowdsourcing parts, primarily from surgeons with spare components or other Argus II recipients who no longer use their devices. Perk now has several spare parts in reserve in case of future breakdowns.
Despite the frantic efforts to retain what little sight he has, Perk has no regrets about having the device implanted. And while he no longer trusts Second Sight, he is looking forward to possibly obtaining more advanced implants from companies in the Netherlands and Australia working on their own products.
Doerr suggests that biotech firms whose implants are distributed globally be bound to some sort of international treaty requiring them to service their products in perpetuity. Such treaties are still applied to the salvage rights for ships that sunk centuries ago, he notes.
“I think that in a global tech economy, that would be a good thing,” says McLean, the fellow at Santa Clara, “but I am not optimistic about it in the near term. Business incentives push toward return on share to stockholders, not to patients and other stakeholders. We likely need to rely on some combination of corporately responsibility…and [international] government regulation. It’s tough—the Paris Climate Accord implementation at a slow walk comes to mind.”
Unlike Perk, Doerr has mostly stopped using his Argus II, the result of combination of fear of losing its assistance from wear and tear and disdain for the company that brought it to market. At 70, Doerr says he does not have the time or energy to hold the company more accountable. And with Second Sight having gone through a considerable corporate reorganization, Doerr believes a lawsuit to compel it to better serve its Argus recipients would be nothing but an extremely costly longshot.
“It’s corporate America at its best,” he observes.
One of the Netherlands’ most famous pieces of pop culture is “Soldier of Orange.” It’s the title of the country’s most celebrated war memoir, movie and epic stage musical, all of which detail the exploits of the nation’s resistance fighters during World War II.
Willem Johan Kolff was a member of the Dutch resistance, but he doesn’t rate a mention in the “Solider of Orange” canon. Yet his wartime toils in a rural backwater not only changed medicine, but the world.
Kolff had been a physician less than two years before Germany invaded the Netherlands in May 1940. He had been engaged in post-graduate studies at the University of Gronigen but withdrew because he refused to accommodate the demands of the Nazi occupiers. Kolff’s Jewish supervisor made an even starker choice: He committed suicide.
After his departure from the university, Kolff took a job managing a small hospital in Kampen. Located 50 miles from the heavily populated coastal region, the facility was far enough away from the prying eyes of Germans that not only could Kolff care for patients, he could hide fellow resistance fighters and even Jewish refugees in relative safety. Kolff coached many of them to feign convincing terminal illnesses so the Nazis would allow them to remain in the hospital.
Despite the demands of practicing medicine and resistance work, Kolff still found time to conduct research. He had been haunted and inspired when, not long before the Nazi invasion, one of his patients died in agony from kidney disease. Kolff wanted to find a way to save future patients.
He broke his problem down to a simple task: If he could remove 20 grams of urea from a patient’s blood in 24 hours, they would survive. He began experimenting with ways to filter blood and return it to a patient’s body. Since the war had ground all non-military manufacturing to a halt, he was mostly forced to make do with material he could find at the hospital and around Kampen. Kolff eventually built a device from a washing machine parts, juice cans, sausage casings, a valve from an old Ford automobile radiator, and even scrap from a downed German aircraft.
The world’s first dialysis machine was hardly imposing; it resembled a rotating drum for a bingo game or raffle. Yet it carried on the highly sophisticated task of moving a patient’s blood through a semi-permeable membrane (about a 50-foot length of sausage casings) into a saline solution that drew out urea while leaving the blood cells untouched.
In emigrating to the U.S. to practice medicine, Kolff's intent was twofold: Advocate for a wider adoption of dialysis, and work on new projects. He wildly succeeded at both.
Kolff began using the machine to treat patients in 1943, most of whom had lapsed into comas due to their kidney failure. But like most groundbreaking medical devices, it was not an immediate success. By the end of the war, Kolff had dialyzed more than a dozen patients, but all had died. He briefly suspended use of the device after the Allied invasion of Europe, but he continued to refine its operation and the administration of blood thinners to patients.
In September 1945, Kolff dialyzed another comatose patient, 67-year-old Sofia Maria Schafstadt. She regained consciousness after 11 hours, and would live well into the 1950s with Kolff’s assistance. Yet this triumph contained a dark irony: At the time of her treatment, Schafstadt had been imprisoned for collaborating with the Germans.
With a tattered Europe struggling to overcome the destruction of the war, Kolff and his family emigrated to the U.S. in 1950, where he began working for the Cleveland Clinic while undergoing the naturalization process so he could practice medicine in the U.S. His intent was twofold: Advocate for a wider adoption of dialysis, and work on new projects. He wildly succeeded at both.
By the mid-1950s, dialysis machines had become reliable and life-saving medical devices, and Kolff had become a U.S. citizen. About that time he invented a membrane oxygenator that could be used in heart bypass surgeries. This was a critical component of the heart-lung machine, which would make heart transplants possible and bypass surgeries routine. He also invented among the very first practical artificial hearts, which in 1957 kept a dog alive for 90 minutes.
Kolff moved to the University of Utah in 1967 to become director of its Institute for Biomedical Engineering. It was a promising time for such a move, as the first successful transplant of a donor heart to a human occurred that year. But he was interested in going a step further and creating an artificial heart for human use.
It took more than a decade of tinkering and research, but in 1982, a team of physicians and engineers led by Kolff succeeded in implanting the first artificial heart in dentist Barney Clark, whose failing health disqualified him from a heart transplant. Although Clark died in March 1983 after 112 days tethered to the device, that it kept him alive generated international headlines. While graduate student Robert Jarvik received the named credit for the heart, he was directly supervised by Kolff, whose various endeavors into artificial organ research at the University of Utah were segmented into numerous teams.
Forty years later, several artificial hearts have been approved for use by the Food and Drug Administration, although all are a “bridge” that allow patients to wait for a transplant.
Kolff continued researching and tinkering with biomedical devices – including artificial eyes and ears – until he retired in 1997 at the age of 86. When he died in 2009, the medical community acknowledged that he was not only a pioneer in biotechnology, but the “father” of artificial organs.