A remarkable new system has restored function in pig organs one hour after the animals have died, according to the journal Nature. Fear not: the researchers have no plans to create an army of undead pig zombies, but they do hope their work could someday help to save lives by increasing organ availability for transplantation.
Just moments after the heart stops beating, the body will undergo a cascading process whereby cells and organs are destroyed through a lack of oxygen and nutrients. This results in irreversible cellular failure, the swelling of organs, and the collapsing of blood vessels.
In this latest study, a team led by scientists from Yale University has managed to ward off this seemingly inevitable process in pigs using a system they call OrganEx.
It works a lot like the heart-lung machines used in open-heart surgery to oxygenate blood during the operation while the organs are busy. In effect, OrganEx system involves pumping the pigs’ bodies with oxygen and a complex perfusion fluid that contains all the necessary ingredients to correct electrolyte imbalances and counteract the damage caused by the lack of blood flow.
Using this technique, they preserved the cells and organs of pigs for up to an hour after the heart had stopped beating.
“Basically, with intervention, we were able to show that we can persuade cells not to die," Zvonimir Vrselja, lead study author from the Department of Neuroscience at Yale School of Medicine, commented at a media conference.
“Under the microscope, it was difficult to tell the difference between a healthy organ and one which had been treated with OrganEx technology after death,” added Vrselja.
Despite the cells and organs appearing healthy, there was no organized electrical activity seen within the brains, suggesting the animals were not conscious during the experiments.
The researchers were keen to stress that this is still early research and, for now, the focus is on animal organs with the view of potentially applying it to the field of organ transplantation. While they say it could someday be applied to a human who had a heart attack or drowned, there is heaps more work to be done before that’s even considered
“I think we’re quite far away from human application of this whole body experiment,” said Dr Stephen Latham, study author and Director of Yale's Interdisciplinary Center for Bioethics.
“The salvaging and maintenance of organs for transplant is, I think, of much closer and much more parasitical clinical goal that could be based on this study. Still, there’s more work to do in that connection too, but before you hook this up to a person to try to undo whole body ischemic damage, you need to do a lot more work,” explained Latham.
“It’s not that it couldn’t be done, it's just going to be a long way away.”
When asked by journalists about the possibility of resurrecting dead human bodies using this technology, one of the researchers remarked: “This is a lot less than exciting than the press wants it to be.” However, that seems to be selling the study short.
Since donor organs can currently only be held for around 12 hours outside of the body, this kind of technology has the potential to save lives by easing the demand for donor organs. Some 75,000 people in the US are on the active waiting list for organs at any given time, but there are just 8,000 deceased organ donors each year and living donors only provide around 6,000 organs annually, according to the CDC.
With bold technology like this, that shortage could be a thing of the past.