Yale neuroscientists restored some cell function, heartbeat and blood flow in 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 for transplantation and could one day help reverse death.
In a feat that blurs the line between life and death, researchers at the Yale School of Medicine have restored some cellular functions in the organs of dead pigs. The achievement, which was published in Nature on Wednesday, sparks hope for future medical advances 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.
The 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. Still, scientists say they have discovered a previously unknown ability for mammalian cells to recover after blood has stopped flowing.
“Cells don’t die as quickly as we think, which basically opens up the possibility of intervention,” Zvonimir Vrselja, a neuroscientist on the Yale research team, told a news conference. “If we intervene properly, maybe we can tell them not to die.”
Unlocking this ability could allow doctors to preserve more human organs for donation after death, reducing the shortage of organs for transplant and saving thousands of lives. The new technology could also revolutionize life support treatment. Some researchers said the discovery could even pave the way for bringing people back to life hours after death.
“Death is not an instantaneous event, it is a gradual process, and we’ve gained another tool to stimulate it,” said Anders Sandberg, a neuroscientist at the Future of Humanity Institute at the University of Oxford, who was not affiliated with the study. an affirmation.
The same research group previously developed an infusion system called BrainEx. In 2019, this system restored some structure and function in the brains of pigs killed four hours after they were decapitated.
Death is more reversible than scientists thought
The OrganEx process may one day save people who die from drowning, heart attacks, massive bleeding from car accidents, or athletes who die suddenly from a heart defect, according to Dr. Sam Parnia, director of critical 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 ruptured vessel that caused the patient to bleed.
“Otherwise, healthy people, including athletes who die but whose cause of death is treatable at any time, can be brought back to life. And if the cause of death is not treatable, their organs can be preserved to give life 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 has occurred,” he added.
Still, the Yale researchers cautioned against getting too excited about the afterlife.
“This is a long way from being used in humans,” said Dr. David Andrijevic, a neuroscientist on the Yale research team, at the briefing, adding, “It doesn’t restore all function 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. Blood vessels collapse and prevent new blood flow.
By preventing swelling and restoring full circulation, the new OrganEx technology could one day extend the window for organ recovery from healthy people who have died. This would allow for more organ donations, potentially saving thousands of people who would die on transplant waiting lists.
This newfound 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 deliver blood through the dysfunctional organ, a process called perfusion. ECMO only delays cell death and often does not fully saturate organs with blood, leaving some smaller blood vessels to collapse.
OrganEx is “like ECMO on steroids,” said Dr. Nenad Sestan of the Yale neuroscience team and in the new study performed much better than ECMO. The organs showed signs of being fully flushed with blood and fully oxygenated, with less bleeding and inflammation. The researchers even observed patterns of gene expression in certain cells that indicated that the tissues were repairing themselves.
These potential new abilities — preserving more organs for transplantation, making life support more effective, and reviving people whose blood has stopped flowing — require much more research. They also carry ethical implications.
“There is a challenging ethical question in determining when radical life support is useless, and as technology advances we may find more ways to keep bodies alive despite being unable to revive the person we truly care about. Yet there’s a lot of work to find criteria for when additional treatment is useless, and also on how to get people back off the cliff,” Sandberg said.
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