Bloomberg Línea Ideas — The news went around the world: on Monday (10), David Bennett (a terminally ill New Yorker) became the first man in the history of medicine to receive the heart of a genetically modified pig. At the University of Maryland Medical Center, Bennett was encouraged to try his last resort as a team of surgeons decided to perform an innovative procedure for “compassionate reasons”, one of the opportunities provided by the FDA for this type of testing in living people.
This is the first case of a heart xenotransplantation, that is, the transplantation of that organ between two different species.
Bennett’s option has a Mexican protagonist.
We are talking about Alfonso Romo, the Chief of Staff of the Presidency of Mexico until a few months ago and who, among his many offshore businesses, owns a firm founded in 2005 in La Jolla, California, called Synthetic Genomics. To do so, he hired none other than Craig Venter, the scientist who managed to decode the sequence of the human genome, to set up a laboratory focused on genomic projects with $15 million.
Romo has always flirted with futuristic technology and genetic advancements ever since he owned Seminis, the largest germplasm company on the planet, which he sold first to Paine and then to Monsanto. A curious fact: Romo is deemed the “father” of baby carrots, which were developed by Seminis.
Seven years ago, Synthetic Genomics began working on a project as unique as it was disruptive: making a series of genetic changes in pigs to make their organs more suitable for transplant into humans without rejection.
For this initiative, Romo and Venter partnered with another biotech company: United Therapeutics of Silver Spring, Maryland (UTHR). Until this Tuesday (11), its shares rose as a good sign of the market that medicine is the new focus of investments in this pandemic world.
I remember interviewing Alfonso Romo 11 years ago in his condominium in the so-called “Torres de Coca-Cola”, in the Polanco neighborhood of Mexico City, when he told me that this company was led by someone whom he greatly admired and with whom he was proud to work in his health projects: Martine Rothblatt. She was a telecommunications entrepreneur, lawyer specializing in space law, Ph.D. in Ethics of Medicine, existentialist philosopher, writer, promoter of Artificial Intelligence and billionaire, and one of the first transsexual entrepreneurs in the United States. She left her imprint on icons such as GeoStar and PaAmSat, and on the development of the first satellite radio with WorldSpace and Sirius.
But Rothblatt left the corporate world to invest tons of money in genetic research 15 years ago, when she learned one of her daughters, Jenesis, was diagnosed with pulmonary hypertension and that her only salvation was a transplant.
Given the low possibility of getting it both for her daughter and for thousands of patients in the world, she focused solely on looking for alternatives such as the preparation of organs in animals for transplants and, according to many studies and clinical developments, the closest in size and compatibility were those of pigs.
In the last seven years, Romo’s laboratory (which has another world-class Mexican on its board, the scientist and communicator Juan Enriquez) achieved changes by adding to pigs human genes that produce a protein called CD46, which moderates the actions of immune system in order to make the organ less likely to be rejected by the recipient.
In October 2021, the partnership between Romo and Rothblatt enabled the first xenotransplant to a patient with kidney problems, who did not survive.
However, for David Bennett, the predictions are more optimistic.
Alfonso Romo left his office in the National Palace and his job of connecting businessmen with the Presidency of Andrés Manuel López Obrador, but he never left his (personal and financial) interest in the world of science.
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial boards of Bloomberg Línea, Falic Media or Bloomberg LP and their owners.
--This story was translated by Bianca Carlos, localization specialist at Bloomberg Línea.