When the University of Maryland Medical Center announced the first successful transplant of a heart that was grown in a genetically altered pig earlier this week, it notched a big win for one of America’s wealthiest self-made women.
Revivicor, a subsidiary of United Therapeutics–founded and led by Martine Rothblatt – supplied the heart that made the surgery possible. A former communications satellite lawyer who went on to cofound Sirius Satellite Radio, Rothblatt, 67, has been on a long journey to biotechnology success.
United Therapeutics, which is listed on the Nasdaq, has been experimenting with pig cloning and genetic modification in recent years, with the goal of creating organs that the human body won’t reject during transplant operations. Through its Revivicor arm, the company has worked to manufacture the engineered pig organs, such as xenokidneys and xenohearts, to be transplanted to patients with end-stage renal and cardiac diseases.
Born to a dentist and raised in San Diego, a college-age Rothblatt hitchhiked around the world and supported herself playing in hotels as a musician. After touring a NASA satellite facility in the Seychelles, Rothblatt became fascinated with the capabilities of satellite networks that could allow people worldwide to listen to the same music. When he came back to the U.S., (Rothblatt was born male; in 1994 Rothblatt underwent gender reassignment surgery.) Rothblatt got a joint law degree andMBA at UCLA and worked in communications satellite law for a Washington D.C. firm. In 1990, Rothblatt cofounded Sirius Satellite Radio to execute her vision of satellite network technology.
Rothblatt took Sirius public in 1993, and soon moved onto a new venture that hit closer to home: United Therapeutics. Rothblatt launched the company in 1996 to seek a cure for pulmonary arterial hypertension – high blood pressure that affects arteries in the lung and heart – after her daughter was diagnosed with the disease at the age of six. The firm, which went public in 1999, now sells four drugs approved by the Food and Drug Administration used to treat the disease. Before the development of these drugs, the rare disease had a high mortality rate within a few years of patients being diagnosed. These treatments are credited with saving Rothblatt’s daughter and thousands of others.
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Rothblatt, 67, remains CEO of United Therapeutics, which has a nearly $10 billion market cap. Ranked No. 56 on Forbes’ 2021 list of America’s Richest Self Made Women, and one of the world’s most successful transgender women, she is currently worth an estimated $670 million. It was Rothblatt who early on steered her company towards organ transplants. “In my business at United Therapeutics, I’ve come across too many patients who unfortunately have passed away while waiting for an organ transplant,” she said in an interview with Forbes back in 2018.
Rothblatt said at the time that she was interested in finding a way to save some of the 80% of donated lungs that are deemed unstable for transplantation. One of United Therapeutics’ subsidiaries, Lung Biotechnology Public Benefit Corp., used a method known as ex vivo lung perfusion to infuse nutrients into lungs to optimize their viability for transplant. In 2015, United Therapeutics collaborated with the Mayo Clinic to operate a center for the restoration procedure.
“That’s the earthshot that’s kind of helping me, step by step, get to the moonshot,” Rothblatt said in 2018. “The moonshot is to have an unlimited supply of transplantable organs.”
To that end, United Therapeutics has been cloning pigs for years and says it is the largest cloner of pigs in the world. It gained fame for xenotransplantation in October, when surgeons at NYU Langone Health in New York City attached a modified pig kidney, from a Revivicor pig, that functioned normally in a brain-dead human on life support. Xenotransplantation has previously been highly unsuccessful and controversial.
Rothblatt at the time said the surgery “is an important step forward in realizing the promise of xenotransplantation, which will save thousands of lives each year in the not-too-distant future.”
In 2018, Rothblatt said that the company had replaced ten genes in pig organs that the human body would reject with “humanized forms of the genes” or removed the genes completely.
This week’s surgery provided information for the medical community about xenotransplantation that could serve in researching future production of organs. The man who received the transplant, David Bennett, had terminal heart disease and on Jan. 7 underwent the procedure after previously being deemed ineligible for a conventional heart transplant, according to UMMC.
“This was a breakthrough surgery and brings us one step closer to solving the organ shortage crisis,” said Bartley Griffith, the doctor who transplanted the heart to Bennett, in a press release from UMMC. “There are simply not enough donor human hearts available to meet the long list of potential recipients.”
Shares of United Therapeutics have climbed 7.9% since the announcement. Rothblatt owns nearly 1.5% of United Therapeutics’ stock, worth about $140 million as of Friday’s market close , plus options to acquire shares worth some $200 million more.
She’s also a licensed helicopter pilot who has worked on the development of electric helicopters and, as a transhumanist, also experiments with robots. In 2004, Rothblatt cofounded the Terasem Movement Foundation, a non-profit that aims to research nanotechnology for human life extension. Through the foundation, she has pushed people to “create a digital backup” of their brains to computers, with the potential to someday create computer-run doppelgangers.