No. 16: “The Xeno Chornicles: Ten Years on the Frontier of Medicine Inside Harvard’s Transplant Lab””
Context at the end of this excerpt.
Other entries in #33Stories at the Table of Contents. See you tomorrow!
Originally published in 2005 by PublicAffairs/Perseus
The opening chapter, “Double Knockout,” of “The Xeno Chronicles”:
A twenty-one-pound pig
A cold day was dawning when Dr. David H. Sachs left his home and headed to his Boston laboratory, a few miles distant. He was praying that experimental animal no. 15502 -- a cloned, genetically engineered pig -- had arrived safely overnight from its birthplace in Missouri.
It was Friday, February 7, 2003.
Ordinarily a calm and measured man, Sachs had fretted for weeks over this young animal, whose unusual DNA might help save untold thousands of human lives. He worried about the weather, so frigid that Boston Harbor had iced over and pipes in the animal facility had frozen, fortunately without harm to the stock. He worried that the pig would become sick before getting to Boston. He had decided against transporting it by truck, for a winter storm could prove disastrous -- so then he worried about flying it up. What type of aircraft should they use? Commercial? Charter? Which airport in the congested metropolitan area would be safest?
``Use your best judgment,'' Sachs had told the staff veterinarian he had assigned to bring the pig north. ``Just don't lose this pig!''
An immunologist who trained in surgery, Sachs had distinguished himself in the field of conventional transplantation, in which human organs are used. His lab, the Transplantation Biology Research Center, was a part of Massachusetts General Hospital, where he was on staff. He was a professor at the Harvard Medical School. He belonged to the National Academy of Sciences's Institute of Medicine. He was fluent in four languages. He had written or co-written more than 700 professional papers. Science came as naturally to Sachs as breathing.
One achievement, however, still eluded him. For more than thirty years, Sachs had tried to find a way to get the diseased human body to accept parts from healthy animals.
Xenotransplantation, as cross-species transplantation was called, had the potential to save thousands of people who die every year because of a chronic shortage of human organs. Sachs envisioned a time when patients needing a new heart, liver or kidney would simply have their doctor order one up from the biomedical farm. Children born with defects and older people with all manner of ailment would benefit. Sachs himself was not motivated by money, but xeno could become a multi-billion-dollar business. You couldn't buy or sell a human organ, at least not in America and most countries of the world. But there were no laws in the U.S. against commerce in animal parts, although animal-rights activists and others believed there should be.
Many scientists over many years had tried to achieve what Sachs sought.
So far, the idea remained a dream.
A man of average height, Sachs was on a diet but still carried a few too many pounds, a fact he jokingly acknowledged when describing himself as ``chubby.'' With his full head of graying hair and his jolly face, the image of a Teddy bear came to mind -- an image that was reinforced when he laughed, which was often. Sachs favored button-down shirt, tie, khaki slacks, a rumpled suit jacket, and wingtip shoes. Unless you looked closely, you would not notice that his right foot was larger than his left, a remnant of his childhood when, at the age of 4 1/2, he contracted polio, the scourge of the 1940s. Sachs had spent weeks of his early childhood at Manhattan's Hospital for the Ruptured and Crippled, an institution on 42nd Street and Lexington whose very name evoked suffering. The doctors said he might never walk again. But he did, perfectly normally.
``It just never seemed possible to me that I wouldn't,'' Sachs said. ``It just seemed to me that I had to get over this problem. I've never had a defeatist attitude toward anything. I always feel that it's just a matter of being able to figure it out, make it work. That's my attitude toward everything.''
But Sachs could not stop the clock. He was past sixty now and increasingly conscious of his mortality.
``Only recently have I started to realize how finite my lifespan is,'' he said. ``Of course I've known that since I could think, but as you get older you realize that nobody lives past 100 and I'll be lucky if I get over eighty. So I don't have a hell of a lot of time left.''
In his darker moments, Sachs worried that he would never achieve his grand ambition. Experimental animal no. 15502 -- a creature small enough to fit into a baby stroller -- might well be the beginning of his last chance…
-- 30 --
READ the hardcover.
“The Xeno Chronicles” marked my return to medical non-fiction, and it was my second book with PublicAffairs – and the first there edited by the brilliant Lisa Kaufman. I dedicated it to “the three most incredible children, and the most incredible granddaughter: Rachel, Katy, Calvin and Isabella. I love you guys!!!” Did, do, and now we have two more youngsters in the family: Rachel’s second child, Olivia, and Katy’s first, Vivienne. Here, here!
Some of the reviews for “The Xeno Chronicles”:
"The xenotransplantation story has the makings of a Hollywood problem-picture blockbuster... Thought-provoking reading."
A selection of the Scientific American Book Club
One of the three best Health Sciences books of 2005.
-- Library Journal, March 1, 2006.
"Dr. Samuel Johnson had James Boswell, and Dr. Sachs has G. Wayne Miller. The author has written a page-turner with good humor and elan, a memorable account of a fine scientist and his team on the cusp of life-saving research."
-- Boston Globe, Sept. 21, 2005.
"Xenotransplantation has the potential to radically transform medical practice, and Miller notes the financial stake pharmaceutical companies have in this research. But he focuses on the human issues... Miller always keeps readers' attention focused squarely on the hopes being placed on this research."
-- Publishers Weekly, April 11, 2005.
"Miller takes a broad, balanced approach."
-- Chicago Tribune, July 31, 2005.
"If you have any curiosity about how human beings could outfox illness in the 21st century, this is a must read... Miller sketches a vivid portrait of the pioneers in a field of science wracked by ethical issues."
-- Providence Journal, June 5, 2005.
"The writing is fluid and fun, and Miller systematically portrays a smart scientist who's never going to quit trying."
-- Wilson Quarterly, Summer 2005.
"Miller tells the story of this research and its leading figure, David H. Sachs, as he races to finish his controversial experiments before funding runs out."
-- Washington Post, June 12, 2005.
"Miller's flair for a dramatic story and a brilliant cast of characters make this a gripping read."
-- Library Journal, July 2005.
"The xenotransplantation story has the makings of a Hollywood problem-picture blockbuster. Thought-provoking reading."
-- Booklist, June 1, 2005.
"Miller, a staff writer at The Providence Journal,provides a you-are-there narrative of a scientist's attempts to make a breakthrough in the field of organ transplantation."
-- Book News, 2005.
"Miller creates a vivid, personalized account of a controversial arm of biomedical science and delves into the ethics of exploiting animals for the sake of people."
-- Science News, Sept. 10, 2005.