A Yale-developed technology called OrganEx has been used to partially revive the organs of dead pigs an hour after their hearts stopped beating — an achievement that could have major implications for people in need of organ donations.
“Things are not as dead as we previously presumed,” researcher Zvonimir Vrselja told BBC News. “We have demonstrated that we can actually initiate cell-repair on a molecular level. We can persuade cells not to die.”
The challenge: When the heart stops beating, the body loses its steady supply of oxygen-rich blood. Within minutes, organs will start to swell, which collapses blood vessels and cuts off circulation, and cells throughout the body will start to die.
These events mean that transplant surgeons must act fast to remove organs from a donor once their heart stops. If too much time passes, the damage will become too severe and irreversible, and the organs will no longer be viable for transplant.
The study: OrganEx could potentially buy transplant surgeons more time by keeping organs viable, longer.
The system has two main parts. The first is an experimental fluid that suppresses inflammation and interrupts the processes that cause cell death. The second is a device that pumps the fluid throughout the body.
“It was difficult to tell the difference between a healthy organ and one treated with OrganEx.”Zvonimir Vrselja
For their study, the Yale team anesthetized pigs and then induced cardiac arrest by shocking the animals’ hearts. They then waited an hour before treating some of the dead pigs with OrganEx and some with ECMO — a machine that provides heart and lung support in critically ill people.
The researchers then monitored the animals for six hours before dissecting and studying their organs.
The results: The ECMO-treated pigs exhibited all the usual signs of cardiac death, including organ swelling and collapsed blood vessels.
Dead pigs treated with OrganEx, meanwhile, exhibited some restored organ function. Researchers saw evidence of electrical activity in their hearts, their circulation was restored, and key cellular functions were taking place in their livers, kidneys, and other body parts.
“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,” said Vrselja.
Strangely, the pigs seemed to have regained some motor functions, too — at one point during the experiment, they spontaneously and involuntarily jerked their heads.
”It was quite startling for the people in the room,” study co-author Stephen Latham told reporters.
Looking ahead: In the US, 17 people die every day because they needed a new organ and one wasn’t available. If OrganEx can do the same thing in people that it did in dead pigs, it could potentially increase the number of viable transplant organs and save countless lives.
Much more research is needed before the technology can even be tested in human cadavers, though, and even then, researchers will need to navigate the ethical questions OrganEx raises about life, death, and consent to organ donation.
“If you do this in humans, it’ll be really important that people are told not just that they’re volunteering to have their organs transplanted, but to have their bodies kept alive for an indeterminate period of time to assist in that transplantation,” Hank Greely, a Stanford law and ethics professor, told MIT Technology Review.
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