By Dr. Sanjay Gupta
Annette Tersigni decided at the age of 48 that she wanted to make a difference. She attended nursing school and became a registered nurse three years later. “Having that precious pair of letters – RN – at the end of my name gave me everything I wanted,” she writes on her website. Before long, Tersigni discovered the rewards – as well as the physical and emotional challenges – that come with nursing.
“I was always stressed when I worked, afraid to get sued for making a mistake or medical error,” says Tersigni, who was working in the heart transplant unit of a North Carolina hospital. “Plus, working the night shift caused me to gain weight and stop working out.” Tersigni moved to another hospital, but the long shifts continued. Three years later, she left her job.
Tersigni’s experience isn’t unusual. Three out of four nurses cited the effects of stress and overwork as a top health concern in a 2011 survey by the American Nurses Association. The ANA attributed problems of fatigue and burnout to “a chronic nursing shortage.” A 2012 report in the American Journal of Medical Quality projected a shortage of registered nurses to spread across the country by 2030.
Work schedules and insufficient staffing are among the factors driving many nurses to leave the profession. American nurses often put in 12-hour shifts over the course of a three-day week. Research found nurses who worked shifts longer than eight to nine hours were two-and-a-half times more likely to experience burnout.
“Our results show that nurses are underestimating their own recovery time from long, intense clinical engagement, and that consolidating challenging work into three days may not be a sustainable strategy to attain the work-life balance they seek,” says study author Linda Aiken, PhD, director of the Center for Health Outcomes and Policy Research at the University of Pennsylvania School of Nursing.
Deborah Burger, RN, co-president of the union and professional association National Nurses United, doesn’t believe that long work shifts tell the whole story. “Most people can work a 10- or 12-hour shift if they’ve got the right support and right level of staffing,” Burger says.
“In order for nurses to feel satisfied and fulfilled with their work, the staffing issues must be seriously addressed from a very high level,” says Eva Francis, MSN, RN, CCRN, a former nursing administrator. “Nurses also need to be able to express themselves professionally about the workload, and be heard without the fear of threat to their jobs or the fear of being singled out.”
A new study suggests that nurses’ burnout risk may be related to what drew them to the profession in the first place. Researchers at the University of Akron in Ohio surveyed more than 700 RNs and found that nurses who are motivated primarily by the desire to help others, rather than by enjoyment of the work, were more likely to burn out.
“We assume that people that go into nursing because they are highly motived by helping others are the best nurses,” says study author Janette Dill, assistant professor of sociology at the University of Akron. “But our findings suggest these nurses may be prone to burnout and other negative physical symptoms.”
RELATED: Managing Job Stress
That finding doesn’t surprise Jill O’Hara, a former nurse from Hamburg, NY, who left nursing more than a decade ago.
“When a person goes into nursing as a profession, it’s either because it’s a career path or a calling,” says O’Hara, 56, who now operates her own holistic health consulting practice. “The career nurse can leave work at the end of the day and let it go, but the nurse who enters the field because she is called to it takes those emotionally charged encounters home with her. They are empathetic, literally connecting emotionally with their patients, and it becomes a part of them energetically.”
Besides driving many nurses out of the profession, burnout can compromise the quality of patient care. A study of Pennsylvania hospitals found a “significant association” between high patient-to-nurse ratios and nurse burnout with increased infections among patients. The authors’ conclusion: A reduction in burnout is good for nurses and patients.
So what can be done? O’Hara thinks the burnout issue should be addressed early on, when future nurses are still in school. “I honestly believe the way to truly help nurses avoid burnout is to begin with a foundation of teaching while in school that stresses the importance of knowing yourself,” she says. “By that I mean your strengths and weaknesses. It should be taught that self-care must come first.”
Burger stresses the importance of taking regular breaks on the job. “If you’re not getting those breaks or they’re interrupted, then you don’t have the ability to refresh your spirit,” she says. “It sounds hokey, but it is true that you do need some brain downtime so that you could actually process the information you’ve been given.”
Tersigni, 63, now works part-time at a local hospital, specializing in the health and well-being of other nurses. She founded Yoga Nursing, a stress-management program combining deep breathing, quick stretches, affirmations, and relaxation and meditation techniques. “All of these can be done anytime throughout the day,” Tersigni says. “I even teach nurses to teach these to their patients. So the nurse breathes, stretches, and relaxes, while also teaching it to the patient.”
By Rena Gapasin
If you are a nursing student or new nurse, you are probably wondering what you will need in your work bag. Aside from your personal stuff, what are the things you bring that signifies you are a nurse?
These nursing supplies listed below are a must if you want to do your job efficiently.
The most common supplies nurses have in their bags are:
This is one of the most important tools of the trade. Nurses use this tool to listen to things such as the heart, veins, and intestines to make sure proper function. According to Best Stethoscope Reviews, here are the 6 best stethoscopes to buy. As you surely know, it's one of the most important tools for a patient's assessment.
One of today's leading stethoscope brands is Littmann. You can choose from the classic style to the most advanced kind.
A handy reference listing down common medicines and conditions. MIMS provides information on prescription and generic drugs, clinical guidelines, and patient advice. Nurses can also use Swearingen's Manual of Medical-Surgical Nursing, a complete guide to providing optimal patient care.
- Scissors and Micropore Medical Tape
Bandage scissors are used for cutting medical gauze, dressings, bandages and others. Nurses need to have these in their pockets for emergency use, especially for wound care. Micropore tape is also important and should be readily available, for example, when your patient accidentally pulls his/her IV.
- Lotion and Hand Sanitizer
Nurses never forget to wash their hands several times throughout the day, leaving their skin dry. That's why having lotion in their bags is important to keep the skin in good condition. Meanwhile, the sanitizer helps nurses steer clear of germs, along with other contagious agents.
Six saline flushes
Sanitary items - gauze, sterilized mask and gloves, cotton balls
OTC pharmacy items (cold medicines, ibuprofen and other emergency meds)
Small notebook - for taking notes from doctors and observations of your patients.
Watch with seconds hand
On Nurse Nacole’s website, she shares that she carries a drug handbook, intravenous medications, makeup mirror, tape measure, towel, lotion, wipes, 4 in 1 pen and a homemade cheat sheet for her patients.
Also, in MissDMakeup's What's In My Work Bag Youtube video, she has a box of batteries, tapes, a pack of gum, toothbrush, sanitizer, coupons, snacks, umbrella, stethoscope, pens, folder of her report sheet and information sheet, tampons, charger, name tag, ID, makeup bag, eye drops, lotion, hair clips, highlighter, pen light, and journal.
So, What's in My Bag?
In my bag, I have a 4-in-1 pen, a highlighter, IDs, bandage, journal to write some new information when I surf the net, my phone with medical e-books and medical dictionary in it, and other stuff like alcohol, sanitizer, over-the-counter meds (such as paracetamol, cold medicine, pain killers, multivitamins), eye drops, handkerchiefs, floss, toothbrush, nail file, band aids, and food.
Aside from my knowledge in providing quality patient care, I also bring things that can help me get through my shift. In an effort to make things more compact and easy for a nurse to get access to, most common nursing supplies are available in a portable kit. The size and styles are developing as new ways of making a nurse's shift easier.
These are just few of the essential nursing paraphernalia that a new nurse needs.
What's in your bag that you can’t live without?
Source: nurse together
With the generous support of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and guided by a national advisory committee, a multidisciplinary team based at the University of Pennsylvania seeks to learn from clinicians or clinical leaders who are primarily responsible for transitional care services in health systems and communities throughout the United States. Specifically, the team is conducting a research study designed to better understand how transitional care services are being delivered in diverse organizations. Participation in this research survey is voluntary.
If you are a clinician or clinical leader responsible for transitional care service delivery in your organization, I encourage you to learn more about this study. To access the survey and more information on the study, please visit:
Transitional Care Survey
NAHN is happy to assist Dr. Mary Naylor and the University of Pennsylvania in this 2 year project. Dr. Mary Naylor will be providing NAHN with feedback on the survey results. If you know of others who have such responsibility within your association or work environment, please forward this email to them.
Thank you in advance for your consideration of this request.
By Caleb Hellerman
Earlier this week, Brian Shepherd sat down in a small doctor's office in Bethesda, Maryland. A technician swabbed his arm and gave him a quick jab with a needle.
With that, Shepherd became subject No. 13 in the experiment testing a potential Ebola vaccine.
The trial was launched on an emergency basis earlier this month by the National Institute on Allergy and Infectious Disease. It's the first to test this kind of Ebola vaccine in humans.
"It's not just for the money," Shepherd wrote in a Reddit AMA. "I'm very interested in translational research and experiencing it from the guinea pig side is very rewarding. But yeah, the money helps. This one study will fund most of my grad school application costs, though not in time for application season."
The vaccine doesn't use live virus and can't infect volunteers with Ebola. Instead it uses specific Ebola proteins to trigger an immune response. They're delivered through the body on a modified version of an adenovirus, a type of cold virus.
In the initial phase, 10 healthy volunteers were given a low dose of vaccine. They were monitored for side effects and tested to see if their bodies are producing antibodies. In the second phase, of which Brian is a part, an additional 10 volunteers are being given a higher dose.
All participants will be followed for nearly a year and tested at regular intervals.
Shepherd, who has volunteered for several prior research studies at NIH, spoke with CNN about his experience.
The following is a condensed version of that conversation:
CNN: How did you come to join the study?
Brian Shepherd: I actually work at NIH; I'm a post-doc researcher in a developmental biology lab. Most trials I learn about from reading a ListServ (email list).
I heard about the vaccine study from going to preliminary meetings for a different study.
CNN: When was this?
Shepherd: Less than a month ago. I had my first appointment on August 26. It was just a sit-down, to talk about the trial, go through paperwork and consent forms, explaining what the trial was for. Then they did an initial run-through of my health history.
CNN: What was next?
Shepherd: The next week I had my second appointment. They did a full physical, blood work, health history, breathing checks. A lot of poking and prodding. My third visit was Wednesday. They drew blood, then gave me a shot. Now, my next appointment is Sunday.
CNN: What was it like? You wrote that pulling off the Band-aid was the worst of the pain.
Shepherd: I'm supposed to keep a daily diary for the first seven days, logging my temperature and any symptoms. The next morning, I woke up with a slight fever, 100.5. I took some Tylenol and it went away.
Other than that I feel fine. In fact, I ran a half-mile in a relay race at lunchtime with some people from work.
CNN: You wrote that for each of these regular visits, you're paid $175. How many times have you been a human guinea pig?
Shepherd: This is my second drug trial. Before that, I did mostly MRI studies.
The first one I did, I was in the MRI machine and had three tasks. They gave me two buttons and showed pictures. If it was Spiderman, I'd hit one button; if it was the Green Goblin, I'd hit the other. So I spent 15 minutes playing Spiderman vs. Green Goblin.
CNN: Did you have any reservation at all, taking part in this Ebola vaccine trial?
Shepherd: None at all.
By David McNamee
Wearable tech is all the rage right now, with Google Glass and now the Apple Watch being gadget fiends' latest must-have items. Electronic activity monitors may be the most popular example of health-monitoring wearable technology. A new analysis from researchers at the University of Texas Medical Branch at Galveston - published in the Journal of Medical Internet Research - compared 13 of these devices.
"Despite their rising popularity, little is known about how these monitors differ from one another, what options they provide in their applications and how these options may impact their effectiveness," says Elizabeth Lyons, senior author of the new study and assistant professor at the Institute for Translational Sciences at the university.
"The feedback provided by these devices can be as, if not more, comprehensive than that provided by health care professionals," she adds.
Lyons and her colleagues assessed 13 wearable activity monitors available on the consumer market. The team wanted to see how the devices may promote healthy and fit behaviors and determine how closely they match successful interventions.
The researchers also compared the functionality of the devices and their apps with clinical recommendations from health care professionals.
In their analysis, the researchers write that most of the goal-setting, self-monitoring and feedback tools in the apps bundled with the devices were consistent with the recommendations health care professionals make for their patients when promoting increase in physical activity.
Despite this, the analysis also finds that some proven successful strategies for increasing physical activity were absent from the monitors. These included:
- Action planning
- Instruction on how to do the behavior
- Commitment and problem solving.
Interestingly, though, the authors suggest that the apps with the most features may not be as useful as apps with fewer - but more effective - tools.
The researchers also consider that how successful any monitor is largely depends on matching individual preferences and needs to the functionality of the device. For instance, someone who gets most of their exercise from swimming will benefit the most from having a waterproof monitor.
Applications for activity monitors beyond aiding weight loss?
The report also contains suggestions on applications for these monitors outside of their typical role as weight loss aids.
For instance, the researchers suggest the wearable activity monitors could be useful for patients who have been released from the hospital. These patients could use the monitors to measure their recovery and quality of life.
Also, health care professionals could use data from the monitors to identify at-risk patients for secondary prevention and rehabilitation purposes.
"This content analysis provides preliminary information as to what these devices are capable of, laying a foundation for clinical, public health and rehabilitation applications. Future studies are needed to further investigate new types of electronic activity monitors and to test their feasibility, acceptability and ultimately their public health impact."
The study only looked at devices compatible with personal computers and iOS mobile devices, and the researchers admit it is possible "the experiences of Android users may differ from our experiences."
Growing up, Adriana Perez experienced the kinds of challenges that are at the core of the immigrant experience in America. She learned English as a second language, attended underperforming public schools in a small town, and struggled to pay for college because her parents—who were farmworkers—couldn’t afford to send her.
Through it all, Perez focused on the gifts she received during her upbringing: love and support from her family, guidance from her teachers and mentors, a strong work ethic derived from a culture that values hard work, and a personal drive to make a difference in her community.
When she reached adulthood, she made an unusual choice—at least for her demographic group: She became a nurse. Now an assistant professor of nursing at Arizona State University, Perez, PhD, ANP, is a member of the most underrepresented racial or ethnic group in nursing.
In 2013, Latinos comprised 3 percent of the nation’s nursing workforce, according to a survey by the National Council of State Boards of Nursing and the National Forum of State Workforce Centers, and 17 percent of the nation’s population, according to a U.S. Census Bureau fact sheet. And their numbers are growing: By 2060, Latinos are projected to comprise nearly one-third of the U.S. population. But their growth in nursing has been slow, Perez said.
Recruiting more Latino nurses is about more than parity in the nursing workforce; it’s about improving health and health care for Latinos, who have disproportionately high rates of HIV transmission, teen pregnancy, and chronic conditions like obesity and diabetes, according to data compiled by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Latinos also are less likely to have health care coverage than other racial or ethnic groups.
More Latino nurses can help narrow disparities, experts say, because they are more likely to be able to provide culturally and linguistically appropriate care to Latino patients. “Having a culturally competent nurse really makes a difference in terms of compliance and patient outcomes,” said Elias Provencio-Vasquez, PhD, RN, FAAN, FAANP, dean of the nursing school at the University of Texas at El Paso and an alumnus of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (RWJF) Executive Nurse Fellows program (2009-2012). “Patients really respond when they have a provider who understands their culture.”
The Institute of Medicine (IOM)—the esteemed arm of the National Academy of Sciences that advises the nation’s leading decision-makers on matters relating to health and medicine—agrees. In 2004, it published a report calling for a more diverse health care workforce to improve quality and access to care and to narrow racial and ethnic health disparities. And in 2010, the IOM released a report that included calls for greater diversity within the nursing profession in particular.
Latinos Aren’t Flocking to Nursing
Yet despite their growing numbers, Latinos are not flocking en masse to the nursing profession.
That’s in large part because of inequity in education, said Dan Suarez, BSN, MA, president of the National Association of Hispanic Nurses. “Many Latinos come from poor educational systems, and few concentrate on the kinds of science and math courses that are needed to enter nursing school. Latinos have the highest high school drop-out rate in the nation, and many students are just focused on staying in school and making it to graduation.”
Meanwhile, there are relatively few Latino nurse leaders and educators who can serve as role models, coaches and mentors to the next generation of nurses, Perez said. “When young people aren’t able to see themselves in those roles, it’s hard to imagine that they could be in that role.”
Language and culture also play a role. Latino parents often discourage Latino youth—and especially boys—from pursuing nursing because it is regarded as a low-status, low-pay service job in Mexico and parts of Latino America, Suarez said. “Parents tell their children they can do better than nursing ... Nursing has an image problem, and we’re trying to change that.”
The culture’s emphasis on traditional gender roles also discourages Latina wives and mothers from working outside the home and, if they do, from pursuing leadership positions, said Mary Lou de Leon Siantz, PhD, RN, FAAN, a professor at the Betty Irene Moore School of Nursing at UC Davis and an RWJF Executive Nurse Fellows program alumna (2004-2007). “The majority of Latina nurses go into associate degree programs and don’t see the need to go back for more education.”
Racism against Latinos, she added, is “full-blown,” especially amid the national debate over immigration. Academics and others retain unconscious biases against Latinos and members of other groups that are underrepresented in nursing.
RWJF is committed to increasing diversity in nursing through programs such as New Careers in Nursing, which works to increase the diversity of nursing professionals to help alleviate the nursing shortage, and the RWJF Nursing and Health Policy Collaborative at the University of New Mexico, which prepares nurses, especially those from underserved populations in the Southwest, to become distinguished leaders in health policy. The Future of Nursing: Campaign for Action, a joint initiative of RWJF and AARP, is working to diversify the nursing workforce, with help from Perez and others. The National Association of Hispanic Nurses, meanwhile, offers scholarships to Latino nursing students.
But more needs to be done, Siantz and others said. Educational bridge programs to help students transition into nursing school are needed, as are interventions to dispel negative stereotypes about nursing among Latinos and increased mentorship for aspiring nurses and nursing students. “Latino nurses often talk about the influence of a family member, or a role model, or a mentor who told them to be a nurse,” said Perez, whose grandmother, a nurse in Mexico, encouraged her to pursue nursing in the United States. “We need to do more of that kind of outreach.”
It's the mother of all hackathons — a group of MIT researchers are bringing together engineers, designers, health experts and parents with the goal of building a better breast pump. "We really want to bring the breast pump out of the lactation closet," said Alexis Hope, a research assistant at the MIT Media Lab. "If you talk to moms about something that makes the first part of having a baby miserable, they always say the breast pump. They're loud, they have a million parts, they're impossible to clean, heavy. They're completely impractical for the realities of your life."
In May, a small group from the lab came together to brainstorm, and a blog post about their efforts drew so much interest the organizers — who include four moms — decided to expand. They expect up to 80 people to join forces Sept. 20 and 21 and work all weekend "to make the breast pump not suck." Participants will split into five-person teams and then pitch their prototypes to the group at the end. Hope said it's "just a starting point," but ideally some of the innovations will catch the eye of pump manufacturers.
Half of all new moms in the United States now breastfeed for the six months recommended by pediatricians. Many of them use pumps to produce milk for when they return to work or are away from the baby. Studies have shown breast milk and nursing has health benefits for both the infant and the mother.
For three young siblings, eating is a life or death proposition, thanks to a rare white blood cell disease, reported KSL.
The Frisk children— Jaxen, age 9; Tieler, age 7; Boston, age 4— have spent weeks in the hospital and are allergic to pets, pollens and multiple foods. The siblings all have eosinophilic gastrointestinal disorder (EGID), an abnormal build-up of eosinophil white blood cells in their GI tracts that can cause inflammation and tissue damage in response to foods and allergens. While the disease is relatively rare, it has increased in prevalence over the past decade affecting one in 2,000 people, according to the American Partnership for Eosinophilic Disorders.
"You need food to survive. But it is also what can kill you in our house," their mother, Jenny Frisk, told KSL.
When they’re exposed to their triggers, the children could have an anaphylactic reaction— potentially fatal allergic symptoms throughout the body.
"Tieler had one sip of milk when she was 1-year-old, and instantly started projectile vomiting and got hives all over her body," her father, Gary, told KSL. "It's a life and death situation at birthday parties, or religious events, or anywhere we go, because food is such a big part of our culture."
Between the three children, they’ve endured 11 surgeries and eight extended hospital stays, with more expected in the future.
On top of the children’s health issues, Gary battled cancer two years ago and Jenny had to have several surgeries due to serious adrenal insufficiencies that were unrelated to EGID.
The family has been bankrupted twice by medical bills. While they make too much income to qualify for help, they don’t make enough to pay for their children’s medical needs. Friends and family have started a GoFundMe account to raise money to pay for genetic testing and treatment.
"When we're looking at an illness that is not curable, and the treatment isn't covered (by insurance), the light at the end of the tunnel is really far away," Jenny said.
By David McNamee
Recently, Medical News Today reported on a breakthrough in xenotransplantation - the science of transplanting functional organs from one species to another. Scientists from the Cardiothoracic Surgery Research Program of the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute (NHLBI) demonstrated success in keeping genetically engineered piglet hearts alive in the abdomens of baboons for more than a year.
While that is a sentence that might sound absurd, or even nightmarish to some, xenotransplantation is a credible science involving the work of leading scientists and respected organizations like the NHLBI and the Mayo Clinic, as well as large private pharmaceutical firms such as United Therapeutics and Novartis.
What is more, xenotransplantation is not a new science, with experiments in cross-species blood transfusion dating as far back as the 17th century.
Why transplant the organs of animals into living humans?
The reason why xenotransplantation is a burning issue is very simple: because of a crippling shortage of available organs for patients who require transplants, many people are left to die.
US Government information on transplantation reports that an average of 79 people receive organ transplants every day, but that 18 people die each day because of a shortage of organs.
The number of people requiring an organ donation in the US has witnessed a more than five-fold increase in the past 2 decades - from 23,198 in 1991 to 121,272 in 2013. Over the same period, the number of people willing to donate has only doubled - 6,953 donors in 1991, compared with 14,257 donors in 2013.
Although some researchers are attempting to solve this shortage by developing mechanical components that could assist failing organs, these devices are considered to increase the risk of infection, blood clots and bleeding in the patient.
Stem cell research is also actively pursuing the goal of growing replacement organs, but despite regular news of breakthroughs, the reality of a functional lab-grown human organ fit for transplant is a long way off.
As the NHLBI's Dr. Muhammad M. Mohiuddin, who led the team responsible for the baboon trial, explained:
"Until we learn to grow organs via tissue engineering, which is unlikely in the near future, xenotransplantation seems to be a valid approach to supplement human organ availability. Despite many setbacks over the years, recent genetic and immunologic advancements have helped revitalized progress in the xenotransplantation field.
Xenotransplantation could help to compensate for the shortage of human organs available for transplant."
Xenotransplantation's eccentric history
The earliest known example of using animal body parts to replace diseased or faulty components of human bodies dates back to the 17th century, when Jean Baptiste Denis initiated the clinical practice of animal-to-human blood transfusion.
Perhaps predictably, the results were not successful and xenotransfusion was banned in Denis' native France.
Fast forward to the 19th century and a fairly unusual trend for skin xenotransplantation had emerged. Animals as varied as sheep, rabbits, dogs, cats, rats, chickens and pigeons were called upon to donate their skin, but the grafting process was not for the squeamish.
Medical records show that, in order for the xenosurgeons of the time to be satisfied that the donor skin had vascularized (developed capillaries), the living donor animal would usually have to be strapped to the patient for several days. However, the most popular skin donor - the frog - was typically skinned alive and then immediately grafted onto the patient.
Despite several reputed successes, modern physicians are skeptical that these skin grafts could have been in any way beneficial to the patient.
The first corneal xenotransplantation - where the cornea from a pig was implanted in a human patient - took place as early as 1838. However, scientists would not look seriously again at the potential for xenotransplantation until the 20th century and the first successes in human-to-human organ transplantation.
In 1907, the Nobel prize-winning surgeon Alexis Carrel - whose work on blood vessels made organ transplantation viable for the first time - wrote:
"The ideal method would be to transplant in man organs of animals easy to secure and operate on, such as hogs, for instance. But it would in all probability be necessary to immunize organs of the hog against the human serum. The future of transplantation of organs for therapeutic purposes depends on the feasibility of hetero [xeno] transplantation."
These words have been described as "prophetic" because Carrel is describing the exact line of research adopted by xenotransplantation scientists a century later.
A few years later, another leading scientist, Serge Voronoff, would also predict modern science's interest in using the pancreatic islets of pigs to treat severe type 1 diabetes in human patients. However, other xeno experiments by Voronoff have not endured critical reappraisal quite so well.
Voronoff's main scientific interest was in restoring the "zest for life" of elderly men. His attempt to reverse this element of the aging process was to transplant slices of chimpanzee or baboon testicle into the testicles of his elderly patients.
Incredibly, this surgery proved quite popular, with several hundred operations taking place during the 1920s in both the US and Europe.
By the 1960s, despite limited availability, the transplantation of kidneys from deceased to living humans had been established by French and American surgeons.
Dialysis was not yet in practice and given that, in the absence of an available donor kidney, his renal failure patients were facing certain death, the Louisiana surgeon Keith Reemtsma took the unprecedented step of transplanting animal kidneys. He chose chimpanzees as the donor animals, due to their close evolutionary relationship with humans.
Although 12 of his 13 chimpanzee-to-human transplants resulted in either organ rejection or infectious complications within 2 months, one patient of Reemtsma continued to live and work in good health for 9 months, before dying suddenly from acute electrolyte disturbance. Autopsy showed that the chimpanzee kidneys had not been rejected and were working normally.
Experiments in the xenotransplantation of essential organs continued in living patients until the 1980s - without lasting success. However, the procedures attracted widespread publicity, with some attributing a subsequent rise in organ donation to the failed attempt to transplant a baboon heart into a baby girl in 1983.
Where does research currently stand?
Despite the more obvious similarities between humans and other primates, pigs are now considered to be the most viable donor animal for xenotransplantation.
Despite diverging from humans on the evolutionary scale about 80 million years ago, whole genome sequencing of the pig has shown that humans and pigs share similar DNA, while the pig's organs - in size and function - are anatomically comparable to humans.
However, perhaps the main advantage of the pig as donor is in its availability - potentially providing an "unlimited supply" of donor organs. If transplantation is viable, pig donors would provide an immediate solution for the organ shortage problem.
Xenotransplantation optimists also believe that the process can improve on the existing success rate of transplantation of human organs. By keeping the pigs healthy, regularly monitored for infection, and alive right until the point when the required organs are excised under anesthesia, the adverse effects associated with transplantation from deceased donors - such as non-function of organs or transmission of pathogens - would be much less likely, this group argues.
However, there are still significant scientific barriers to the successful implementation of xenotransplantation.
The company United Therapeutics - who moved into xenotransplantation research after the daughter of CEO Martine Rothblatt was diagnosed with pulmonary hypertension, a condition with a 90% shortage rate of available lung donors - claim to be making progress with eliminating these barriers.
MedIcal News Today spoke to Rothblatt, who once claimed that the company will have successfully transplanted a pig lung into a human patient "before the end of the decade."
"For a first clinical trial, which was my goal, I think we are on track," she told us. "I said our goal by end of decade is to transplant a xeno lung into a patient with end-stage lung disease and bring them safely back to health."
As well as pioneering lung xenotransplants, the company has ambitions of making pig kidneys, livers, hearts and corneas available for human transplant.
"All are years away, but lung may well be most difficult," admits Rothblatt. "We call it the canary in the coal mine."
In order to make pig lungs compatible with humans, Rothblatt has estimated that 12 modifications need to be made to the pig genome that will prevent rejection. She claims United Therapeutics have now succeeded in making six of these genome modifications.
Also, it was United Therapeutics' genetically modified piglets that provided the world record-beating pig hearts for the NHLBI study in baboons.
Opposition to xenotransplantation
However, science is not the only obstacle to xenotransplantation. Despite clearing all steps of the research with ethics committees at every step, Rothblatt - who has a doctorate in medical ethics - admits there will be unforeseeable regulatory dilemmas and ethics conversations before xenotransplantation can be accepted into clinical practice.
In 2004, the UK's Policy Studies Institute conducted the first major survey of public attitudes towards potential solutions for the organ shortage crisis. The public perception of xenotransplantation was shown to be overwhelmingly negative.
Indeed, response to animal-to-human transplantation was so hostile that some respondents demanded that it be removed as an option on the survey. Although many respondents considered xenotransplantation unethical, the major concern was that animal viruses could infect humans and spread into the population.
Following the survey, an intriguing debate over the ethics of xenotransplantation took place in the pages of Philosophy Now. Making the case against xenotransplantation, Laura Purdy - professor emerita of philosophy at Wells College in Aurora, NY - commented that "the xeno debate proceeds as if saving lives is our top moral priority." She argues that, from this perspective, it suggests that the lives lost down the line as a result of perfecting xenotransplantation do not count.
"What about the 11 million babies and children who die every year from diarrhea, malaria, measles, pneumonia, AIDS and malnutrition?" she questioned. "What about the half-million women who die every year during pregnancy and childbirth when simple measures could save most of them?"
We asked Prof. Purdy why the fact that people die from matters unrelated to transplantation issues would morally preclude science from attempting to also solve the issue of organ donor shortages.
"I agree that, other things being equal, saying that people are dying from other causes doesn't show why we should not also tackle this cause," she replied.
"But once one has taken on board the larger risks to society, both from the research as well as the deployment of the technology, as well as the probability that this is merely a bridge technology that, hopefully will be made obsolete by future developments (such as partial or whole artificial hearts) or advances in public health (making headway against diabetes) and the probability that both research and implementation will be very expensive, that seriously erodes the case for proceeding.
Resources for health are far from infinite. There is a great deal that we could be doing now to advance human health that does not have these downsides - why not focus more there?"
Whether public attitudes toward xenotransplantation have mellowed in the decade since the Policy Studies Institute's survey is not currently known.
However, as the technology advances and the likelihood of implementation draws closer, so too must the public conversation over the perceived rights and wrongs of animal organ transplantation advance in order to hold the science accountable.
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