Scientists successfully revived vital organs from deceased pigs with a technology that shows promise for organ transplantation and further blurs the line between life and death.
The research, published Wednesday in the journal Nature, challenges the assumption that tissue death is swift and irreversible, as the scientists were able to restore the function of several organs an hour after the pigs’ hearts had stopped.
“The latest findings raise a slew of questions — not least, whether medical and biological determinations of death will need revising,” Brendan Parent, director of transplant ethics and policy research at New York University’s Grossman School of Medicine, said in a commentary accompanying the article. The findings, he said, may also force a rethink of critical-care processes.
Shortly after cardiac arrest, blood stops coursing through the body, resulting in a lack of oxygen and nutrient circulation that sets off a cascade of events leading to cellular death and organ injury. Scientists have been looking for ways to protect cells and organs from this process for years.
Researchers led by David Andrijevic of Yale University’s School of Medicine adapted a technology called BrainEx for whole-body use and found it performed better than a standard technique for artificially adding oxygen to blood — called extracorporeal membrane oxygenation, or ECMO — that’s used in hospitals to support patients whose organs have failed.
The tweaked system, designed by Andrijevic and two colleagues and called OrganEx, allowed oxygen to be recirculated through the pigs’ bodies, preserving cells and organs an hour after a cardiac arrest. The group had earlier shown that BrainEx could restore some activity in the cells of pig brains after hours of oxygen deprivation.
The findings hold promise for preserving and transporting organs for transplant, researchers said, although they were reluctant to speculate about other uses.
“This is very far from use in humans,” said Stephen Latham, director of Yale’s Interdisciplinary Center for Bioethics, adding that the process will require far more study before scientists will consider it for people.
Others who weren’t involved in the research said the findings have further ramifications.
“Biological death is more like a cascade of dominoes, with one event triggering the next, than an instantaneous transition,” said Martin Monti, a professor of cognitive psychology at the University of California Los Angeles.
“What is ground-breaking about this technology,” Monti said, “is that this cascade can be halted in some organs if only the right cellular environment and metabolic parameters can be restored. The potential implications, if this will ever be successfully translated to humans, are huge.”
The researchers stressed that the pigs didn’t suffer pain because they were anesthetized and that no electrical activity could be detected in their brains.
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