Overcoming death? Scientists in US revive cells in dead pigs

Scientists in the United States of America have used a new procedure to restore many biological functions in pigs that had been dead for more than an hour, raising profound questions about the boundary between life and death.

Researchers at Yale University used new technology to restore blood circulation and cellular activity to the bodies of pigs that were anaesthetised and then killed through an induced heart attack that stopped blood flowing through the carcasses. This deprived the cells of oxygen, leading to their death.

The pigs then remained dead for an hour.

The project is a follow-up to a 2019 breakthrough where scientists revived dead pigs’ brain cells using a technology named BrainEx. After that finding, the group wondered if it could revive the entire body.

The technology, called OrganEx, involved pumping a restorative fluid containing a blend of 13 compounds that promote cellular health and suppress inflammation, through the dead pigs.

The scientists then pumped the bodies with a liquid containing the pigs’ blood, as well as a synthetic form of haemoglobin (the protein that carries oxygen in red blood cells) and drugs that protect cells and prevent blood clots.

Blood started circulating again, and many cells began functioning, including in vital organs such as the heart, liver and kidney, for the next six 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,” said Prof Nenad Sestan, the study’s senior author and a researcher at Yale.

The research is still in an early experimental phase and many years from potential use in humans. It could ultimately help to extend the lives of people whose hearts have stopped beating or who have suffered a stroke. The technology also shows the potential to dramatically change how organs are collected for transplant and increase their availability to patients in need.

“There are numerous potential applications of this exciting new technology. However, we need to maintain careful oversight of all future studies, particularly any that include perfusion of the brain,” said Dr Stephen Latham, director of the Yale Interdisciplinary Centre for Bioethics.

Prof Sestan said the team was consulting its advisers over the next steps, including evaluating more closely whether the organs functioned well enough to be used in transplant operations.

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