Yale neuroscientists restored some cell functions, heartbeat and blood flow in the dead pigs, they said Wednesday.
The finding shows that the intervention can prevent cells from dying and preserve organs after death.
The new technology could lead to more organs to be transplanted and could someday help reverse death.
In a feat that blurs the line between life and death, researchers at Yale School of Medicine have restored certain cellular functions in the organs of dead pigs. The result, which was published in Nature on Wednesday, ignites hopes for future medical discoveries that could save thousands of lives.
An hour after death, the researchers connected the pigs to a system of pumps, heaters and fillers called OrganEx. By artificially washing the pigs’ organs with blood, a process called perfusion, they restored molecular and cellular function in the heart, brain, liver and kidneys.
Hearts even contracted to pump blood, indicating renewed electrical activity and restoring full blood circulation in the pigs’ bodies. There was no sign of electrical activity in the brain. However, scientists say they have discovered a previously unknown ability for mammalian cells to recover after blood stops flowing.
“Cells don’t actually die as quickly as we thought, which basically opens up the possibility of intervention,” Zvonimir Vrselja, a neuroscientist with the Yale research team, said at a news conference. “If properly intervened, we can perhaps tell them not to die.”
Unlocking that ability could allow doctors to preserve more human organs for donation after death, reducing the shortage of transplanted organs and saving thousands of lives. The new technology could also revolutionize life support treatment. Some researchers have said the discovery could even pave the way for bringing people back to life just hours after death.
“Death is not an instant event, but rather a gradual process, and we have acquired an additional tool to push it,” said Anders Sandberg, a neuroscientist at the Oxford Future of Humanity Institute, who was not affiliated with the study, in a declaration.
The same research group previously developed a perfusion system called BrainEx. In 2019, that system restored some structure and function to the brains of pigs that died four hours after they were beheaded.
Death is more reversible than scientists thought
The OrganEx trial could someday save people who die from drowning, heart attacks, massive haemorrhages from traffic accidents, or athletes who suddenly die from a heart defect, according to Dr. Sam Parnia, director of intensive care and resuscitation research at New York. University Grossman School of Medicine, which was not affiliated with the new study.
With organ tissues preserved and cell death delayed, doctors would have time to unblock the artery that caused the heart attack or repair the torn vessel that caused the patient to bleed.
“Otherwise healthy people, including athletes who die but whose cause of death is curable at any given time, can potentially be brought back to life. And if the cause of death is not curable, their organs can be preserved for giving birth to thousands of people every year, ”Parnia said in a statement.
“Scientifically, death is a biological process that remains treatable and reversible for hours after it occurs,” he added.
However, Yale researchers have warned against getting too excited about life after death.
“This is a long way from use in humans,” said Dr. David Andrijevic, a neuroscientist on the Yale research team, in the briefing, adding, “It does not restore all functions in all organs.”
Better organ preservation could save thousands of lives
Normally, when a heart stops beating and blood stops flowing, it causes other organs to swell. The blood vessels collapse and prevent new blood flow.
By preventing swelling and restoring full circulation, the new OrganEx technology may someday extend the window for organ rescue from healthy people who have died. This would allow for more organ donations, potentially saving thousands of people who would otherwise die on transplant waiting lists.
This new ability to restore organ cell function could also lead researchers to more effective life support.
To support patients whose heart or lungs have stopped working, hospitals use a technique called extracorporeal membrane oxygenation (ECMO) to make blood flow through the dysfunctional organ, a process called perfusion. ECMO only slows cell death and often fails to completely saturate organs with blood, leaving some smaller blood vessels to collapse.
OrganEx is “like ECMO on steroids,” said Dr. Nenad Sestan of Yale’s neuroscience team, and in the new study it worked much better than ECMO. The organs showed signs of being completely flushed with blood and fully oxygenated, with less bleeding and inflammation. The researchers even observed gene expression patterns in some cells that indicated that the tissues were repairing themselves.
These potential new abilities – preserving more organs for transplantation, making life support more effective, and resuscitating people whose blood has stopped flowing – require far more research. They also have ethical implications.
“There is an ethical challenge in determining when radical life support is simply useless and, with the advancement of technology, we may find more ways to keep bodies alive, despite not being able to revive the person we really care about. . Much work remains to find criteria for when further treatment is useless, and also on how to bring people back from the brink, “Sandberg said.
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