The dying process can be reversed, the scientists have shown, by bringing a pig’s organs back to full health after it has been killed.
Scientists at Yale have developed a way to reverse the biological process of death, where organs break down and stop working after the heart stops beating.
The advance could revolutionize transplantation, giving doctors more time to harvest organs, and could also be used to treat critically injured patients in the future.
A dead pig was hooked up to a machine called OrganEx an hour after induced cardiac arrest.
The machine pumps a fluid containing 13 different compounds around the body that prevents the organ from dying and allows the cells to flourish even after the animal dies.
Dying organs treated with the new technology have been shown to recover and improve to the point where they are comparable to those of a live pig.
After death, oxygen levels drop
After death, when the brain dies and the heart stops pumping on its own, oxygen levels drop and there is “a cascade of dominoes” that damage and eventually kill organs.
“All the cells don’t die right away, there’s a more prolonged series of events,” said David Andrijevic, a research associate in neuroscience at the Yale School of Medicine and co-lead author of the study.
“[OrganEx] it is a process in which you can intervene, stop and restore some cellular function.”
Co-author Dr. Zvonimir Vrselja added: “Under the microscope, it was difficult to tell the difference between a healthy organ and one that had been treated with OrganEx technology after death.”
While the technology is effective in improving function, it does not reignite the essence of life, the scientists said, as there was no evidence of electrical activity in the brain after death.
It builds on a 2019 study in which a smaller version of the technology, called BrainEx, repaired neurons in pig brains, although no electrical activity was detected.
“This is a truly remarkable and incredibly significant study. This demonstrates that after death, cells in mammalian (including human) organs, such as the brain, don’t die for many hours,” said Sam Parnia, an associate professor of critical care medicine at New York University who was not involved in the project.
“This study demonstrates that our social convention about death, that is, as an absolute end in black and white, is not scientifically valid. On the other hand, scientifically, death is a biological process that remains treatable and reversible for hours after it has occurred.”
The technology’s potential is vast and the team is cautious that it must be used ethically. There is no reason to believe, they said, that the technology could be used to reverse aging or revive people after death.
Its primary use will be to extend the healthy lifespan of cadavers to allow fitter, healthier organs to be offered for transplantation.
‘Far from use in humans’
In the future, it may also be used in patients who have suffered extreme injuries where blood flow has been interrupted, such as after stroke, drowning or trauma.
“This is a far cry from being used in humans,” said Stephen Latham, co-author of the study and director of the Interdisciplinary Center for Bioethics at Yale.
“The objective here was to see if the use of [OrganEx] could restore metabolic and cellular function in a wide range of organs and we found that it can, but does not restore all function in all organs.
“We need to study in much more detail the degree to which damage is undone in different types of organs before we can even think about trying an experiment like this on a human who has suffered anoxic damage.”
Anders Sandberg, a senior researcher at the University of Oxford, was not involved with the research, but added that the use of the organ donation machine was “good news with no problems”.
However, he cautioned that its applications for living people mean it can prevent people from dying rather than recovering.
“There is a challenging ethical issue 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.” he said.
The research is published in Nature.