Researchers from Yale University have partially revived dead pigs, according to a peer-reviewed study published in Nature on August 3, 2022.
In short, researchers took pigs that had no circulatory activity for over an hour and connected them to the OrganEx system, which pumped a specialized solution mixed with the pig’s own blood into their circulatory system.
Six hours later, the treatment reduced organ swelling, restored circulation from some collapsed blood vessels and even corrected organ damage.
Normally, the body or an organ system left at room temperature after the cessation of circulation will immediately develop warm ischemia. Without blood flow, organ systems will deteriorate very quickly, which is why organs recovered for transplantation are immediately cooled or placed on ice.
The OrganEx experiment circumvents this natural process. Analysis of tissue samples revealed that cells were being repaired at the molecular level. In essence, researchers were able to short circuit part of the natural dying process.
The experiment is groundbreaking and opens the door for at least two possible developments.
First, it could pave the way for the OrganEx technology to be used to delay warm ischemia to help with organ transplantation.
Currently, organ procurement professionals only have a short window of time to get a recovered organ from a deceased donor to a potential transplant candidate. This technology has the potential to radically extend that time.
In addition, it could expand the pool of potential organ donors and save more lives. Currently, only about 2% of deaths are eligible for donation because the donor needs to be either brain dead on a ventilator or suffer a witnessed death in a controlled environment like a hospital.
As the OrganEx technology evolves and combats the effects of warm ischemia, the timeline for donation will be expanded. It might even make it possible for organ donations outside the current parameters.
Second, this new technology challenges the traditional definition of death.
To be clear, OrganEx is nowhere near restoring organ function to the point of raising the dead. They have been able to combat the effects of warm ischemia, witness some cellular repair and cause the heart to flutter a little.
Researchers did not witness any electrical impulses in the pigs’ brains or see enough cellular repair to restore vital functions, but the experiment challenges the idea of irreversibility.
The majority of the country has used the definition of death found in the Uniform Determination of Death Act, which was developed in 1981 to give consistency to practitioners and clarity to when a patient could be declared dead by neurological criteria.
The UDDA defines death as “either (1) irreversible cessation of circulatory and respiratory function, or (2) irreversible cessation of all functions of the entire brain, including the brain stem … ”
OrganEx could challenge the UDDA’s concept of “irreversible cessation,” which assumed that any damage resulting from warm ischemia could not be reversed even if the patient was revived.
For example, it is not uncommon for professionals to restore function in a patient 20 or 30 minutes post cardiac arrest. There is also documentation of patients auto-resuscitating a few minutes after the loss of cardiac function. But in both cases, the damage to the tissue has already occurred and is typically irreversible.
The OrganEx technology was used on pigs that had been dead over an hour but researchers witnessed some level of cellular repair, which could mean that previously irreversible damage on resuscitated humans could be repaired.
The scope of this technology has not yet been defined, and researchers do not know the limit of how long someone would need to be dead before the technology is ineffective.
While no one thinks this technology will ever become a resurrection machine, it does force us to look at our definition of death, specifically the idea of irreversibility.
For context, OrganEx is not the first technology to challenge the definition of death.
In 2019, another group of researchers studying brains removed from deceased pigs were able to restore some function after administering a nutrient and oxygen-rich solution.
Some cells were able to restore limited metabolic functions and some neurons could even send signals, but it was not enough to support consciousness. The researchers did not witness any organized pattern of electrical activity in the brain.
The question of irreversibility is one reason why the Uniform Law Commission has a committee looking at possible revisions to the UDDA, with recommendations expected to be released in 2023.
We’re not talking about technology that will resurrect the dead, but such developments could further complicate end-of-life decisions in the decades to come.
People of faith and the moral community would be wise to begin discussions to clarify how we view, understand and define death.
In addition, it would be helpful to develop frameworks to aid people as they navigate the possibilities that these new technologies could bring in terms of end-of-life care, organ donation and advanced directives.