A new study led by researchers from Yale University reveals that a new technique has successfully been used to reawaken cells and organs in pigs an hour after the death of the animals.
This breakthrough challenges the current definition of death. It could help to save the lives of numerous patients across the world in need of organ transplants by helping organs to last longer.
The research team pumped the bodies of dead pigs with a liquid that contained the animals’ own blood, synthetic hemoglobin, and drugs an hour after their death. Surprisingly, blood circulation restarted in their bodies, and numerous cells in key organs, including the heart, resumed their functions for hours.
“These cells were functioning hours after they should not have been – what this tells us is that the demise of cells can be halted,” senior study author Nenad Sestan told journalists.
Findings from the study were published in the journal Nature. The system or technique used was called OrganEx.
Reviving dead cells and organs
This new work builds on previous research published in 2019. In that study, the team somewhat shocked the scientific community when they used a smaller variant of the system used in this new research to restore cell activity in the brain of pigs that had been decapitated.
Sestan and his fellow researchers wanted to find out whether a similar system can be applied to the entire body in this new study. They, therefore, brought about heart attacks in anesthetized pigs and so halted the flow of blood through their bodies.
Stopping blood flow prevents oxygen from reaching cells in the body, thereby causing their death.
An hour after, the scientists hook the animals up to the OrganEx system to pump them with a special liquid. The fluid included drugs that safeguard cells and stop blood clots, in addition to the pigs’ blood, and a synthetic version of the protein hemoglobin that aids in the transport of oxygen to red blood cells.
This technique restored blood circulation and the functioning of the heart, liver, and other vital organs. The team, therefore, hopes the system will help salvage organs.
Also, OrganEx could make new surgery forms achievable. Anders Sandberg from the Future of Humanity Institute at Oxford University said it makes “more medical wiggle room in cases with no circulation to fix things.”
Definition of death
Based on the findings of this study, experts say there may be a need to revise the definition of death. This research somewhat turns the current definition on its head.
When a person dies, it is believed that nothing can be done to reverse the process. But this work seems to suggest otherwise. It shows that death is reversible, at least for some hours.
“This research shows that many processes that we thought were irreversible are not in fact irreversible,” Benjamin Curtis, an ethics philosopher at Nottingham Trent University, told AFP, “and so on the current medical definition of death a person may not be truly dead until hours after their bodily functions have stopped.”
In this sense, Curtis said there may be bodies in morgues that are not really dead yet.
OrganEx has the potential of reviving people as well, according to researchers. There is a risk of resuscitating people only to a state where they cannot live without life support, however.
The scientists were surprised to observe powerful head movements by almost all the pigs used. They could not tell what brought about the movement because electrical activity was not recorded in the animals’ brains. The animals did not regain consciousness after their death, said co-author Stephen Latham.
Curtis noted the movement was a major worry and there is a need for further research on this technique. Recent research suggested that “conscious experience can continue even when electrical activity in the brain cannot be measured,” he said. This means the system may actually cause the pigs to suffer and would do the same to humans if applied to them.