Scientists revive cell activity in pig organs one hour after death

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Hours after they pumped synthetic fluids through the bodies of dead pigs, a Yale University research team observed their hearts begin to beat weakly. Blood flow has been restored and some cellular functions in vital organs such as the heart and liver have been revived.

The peer-reviewed findings, published in Nature on Wednesday, have far-reaching implications in medical fields like organ transplantation. But they also add to the thorny ethical questions surrounding the definition of death, as the distinction between the dead and the living is increasingly blurred.

According to the Nature article, the Yale research team used the OrganEx system — consisting of a device similar to heart-lung machines used in surgery and experimental mixing of fluids which promotes cellular health and reduces inflammation – in pigs one hour after they stopped having a pulse.

Another group of dead pigs underwent ECMO, a life support procedure that oxygenates the blood outside the body. At the end of the six-hour trial, the scientists determined that the OrganEx technology was able to deliver “adequate amounts of oxygen” to the pigs’ entire bodies, restoring certain key cellular functions in organs such as the heart, liver and kidneys.

“Under the microscope, it was difficult to tell the difference between a healthy organ and an organ that had been treated with OrganEx technology after death,” said Zvonimir Vrselja, a neuroscientist at Yale School of Medicine who worked on the study attended press release.

However, in the dead pigs hooked up to ECMO machines, the blood supply was de-oxygenated. Their bodies remained rigid from rigor mortis, unlike those placed on OrganEx.

Another startling result of the experiment – one that also surprised the Yale team – was involuntary movements in the head and neck of the dead pigs connected to the OrganEx system. This is an indication that some motor functions were preserved, Nenad Sestan, one of the study’s authors, said in the press release.

Thousands of lives depend on a transplant network in need of a “major restructuring.”

The OrganEx study builds on a 2019 Yale School of Medicine project that restored some cellular function in pig brains four hours after the animals were decapitated.

“Research like this suggests that death does not occur at a specific time,” said Nathan Emmerich, a bioethicist at the Australian National University who is not involved with the Yale studies. Instead, he explained, death occurs over time as the processes that keep an organism alive gradually cease – and the new findings suggest that some of the damage caused by the loss of these functions can be repaired.

“The fruits of this research probably won’t allow us to resuscitate anyone, but they can help us save a limited number of people in certain circumstances,” Emmerich said.

The Yale research team underscored the importance of future research and input from bioethics experts. Emmerich foresees many challenges before technologies like OrganEx can be used in humans. For example, they must demonstrate the ability to revive organisms, and not just cellular functions, he said, adding that laws governing organ transplants also need to be adapted to evolving definitions of death.

British parents lose battle to continue life support for 12-year-old in coma

With the advent of modern life support technologies such as ventilators, medical professionals are faced with difficult choices that are sometimes painfully at odds with the wishes of patients’ families. This week Britain’s Supreme Court ruled against the parents of 12-year-old Archie Battersbee, a boy who was on life support after suffering catastrophic brain damage. The judges sided with Battersbee’s doctors, arguing that it was not in the boy’s best interest to continue life support if he was brain dead.

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