- Martine Rothblatt is hoping to eventually 3D-print organs that could be used in humans.
- She is the CEO of the $12 billion biotech United Therapeutics and founder of SiriusXM.
- Rothblatt was named one of Insider’s 100 People Transforming Business in 2022.
After creating the satellite-radio industry and developing a drug for her daughter’s serious disease, Martine Rothblatt is leading her biotech to test another boundary of what’s possible.
The 68-year-old entrepreneur’s newest mission is to create an endless supply of organs. Her company, the $12 billion Maryland-based biotech United Therapeutics, has already put gene-edited pig hearts, lungs, and kidneys into humans in clinical studies. Rothblatt now hopes to start making organs with 3D printing to solve the organ-supply crisis, with over 100,000 Americans on waiting lists for transplants.
“At the end of this century, people will be astonished that just because their kidney, or their lung, or their heart gave out, it’s game over,” Rothblatt said in a 2019 interview. “If you lose a tire on your car, you’re not going to trash your car. You’re going to buy another tire.”
Rothblatt’s team at United Therapeutics has transplanted genetically edited organs from pigs into humans. In September 2021, the first pig-kidney transplant functioned in a brain-dead human. This January, a 59-year-old man survived two months after receiving a pig-heart transplant.
“This is a watershed event,” Dr. David Klassen, chief medical officer of the United Network for Organ Sharing, which isn’t involved with United’s research, told The New York Times at the time of the heart transplant. “Doors are starting to open that will lead, I believe, to major changes in how we treat organ failure.”
Earlier research is underway to 3D-print scaffolds of organs like lungs, hearts, and kidneys. These scaffolds could then be filled with a patient’s own stem cells and transplanted into their body. Rothblatt unveiled a lung scaffold earlier this year, calling it the world’s most complex 3D-printed object.
“I believe this past year we have proven that genetically modified xenografts and lab-cellularized organ scaffolds are practically doable,” Rothblatt said on a November 2 earnings call with Wall Street analysts.
To be sure, this ambitious research is early and far from being widely used, if successful. United Therapeutics executives have said to expect to see more activity by the mid-2020s, as they are building a clinical facility expected to be ready in early 2024 to support more pig-heart studies study.
Rothblatt’s pioneering work on organ transplants led her to be named one of Insider’s 100 People Transforming Business in 2022.
Rothblatt previously founded SiriusXM before starting United Therapeutics
The organ research is far from the first moonshot in Rothblatt’s career. She founded SiriusXM in the 1990s, fascinated by the idea of using satellite signals to broadcast music anywhere.
Her was world was soon upended, when her daughter Jenesis had trouble breathing on family ski trips. At 10 years old, she needed oxygen support and was diagnosed with pulmonary hypertension, also called PAH, a serious rare lung disease. Rothblatt was told there were no treatments, but she refused to accept that prognosis.
Rothblatt left SiriusXM to research the disease herself. Despite having no background in biomedical research, she spent days and nights at the library, reading over research papers. Ultimately, she found a potential drug that may work. After that compound’s owner, the pharma giant GSK, declined to test it against PAH, Rothblatt founded United Therapeutics in 1996 and bought the rights to the molecule.
That drug helped save Jenesis, and United Therapeutics now sells a suite of PAH treatments that have helped over 12,000 patients. Instead of stopping there, Rothblatt is now plowing those revenues, which were nearly $1.7 billion in 2021, into xenotransplantation research.
By the time revenues plateau from the PAH drugs, United plans to be shipping thousands of engineered organs each year, Rothblatt said on the company’s third-quarter earnings call.