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Research on pigs shakes up what we know about dying – and offers transplant hope

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Researchers at Yale University say they have been able to restore blood circulation and other cellular functions in pigs a full hour after their death, suggesting cells do not die as quickly as scientists had assumed.

With more research, the cutting-edge technique could someday potentially help preserve human organs for longer – allowing more people to receive transplants.

The researchers used a system they developed called OrganEx which enables oxygen to be recirculated throughout a dead pig’s body, preserving cells and some organs after a cardiac arrest.

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“These cells are functioning hours after they should not be,” study lead Dr Nenad Sestan said.

“And what this tells us is that the demise of cells can be halted. And their functionality restored in multiple vital organs – even one hour after death.”

Researchers at Yale University say they have been able to restore blood circulation and other cellular functions in pigs a full hour after the animals’ deaths, suggesting that cells don’t die as quickly as scientists had assumed. File image. Credit: CNN

Sestan is the Harvey and Kate Cushing professor of neuroscience and professor of comparative medicine, genetics and psychiatry at Yale.

The research was published in scientific journal Nature on Wednesday, and immediately hailed by independent experts who were not involved in the study.

“This is a truly remarkable and incredibly significant study,” NYU Grossman School of Medicine associate professor of critical care medicine and director of critical care and resuscitation research Dr Sam Parnia said.

“It demonstrates that after death, cells in mammalian organs (including humans) such as the brain do not die for many hours.

“This is well into the post-mortem period.”

The OrganEx system pumps a fluid called a perfusate, mixed with blood, throughout the dead pigs’ blood vessels. Perfusate contains a synthetic form of the protein haemoglobin and several other compounds and molecules that help protect cells and prevent blood clots.

Six hours after treatment with OrganEx, the team found certain key cellular functions were active in many areas of the pigs’ bodies including in the heart, liver and kidney, and that some organ function had been restored.

It builds on research published by the same team in 2019 that used a similar experimental system called BrainEx that delivered artificial blood to pigs’ brains, preventing degradation of important neural functions.

How could the research be applied to humans?

While the research is still at an extremely early stage and very experimental, the researchers hope their work in pigs could ultimately be applied to humans – primarily in developing ways to extend the window for transplants.

The current supply of organs is extremely limited, with millions of people worldwide waiting for transplants.

“I think the technology has a great deal of promise for our ability to preserve organs after they’re removed from a donor,” Yale Interdisciplinary Centre for Bioethics director and study coauthor Stephen Latham said.

“You could take the organ from a deceased donor, and hook it up to the perfusion technology, and perhaps then be able to transport it long distance over a long period of time to get it to a recipient who needs it.”

The researchers made clear they were not in any sense bringing the pigs back to life and more work was needed to understand whether the organs were useable for transplants.

“We couldn’t say that this study showed that any of the organs of this pig were … ready for transplant into another animals, we don’t know that they’re all functioning, what we’re looking at is at the cellular and metabolic levels,” Latham explained.

“And we’re nowhere near being able to say, ‘Oh, my goodness, we’ve restored life not only to this pig, but to any of the individual organs.’ We can’t say that yet. It’s still very much too early.”

Researchers hope their work in pigs could ultimately be applied to humans, primarily in developing ways to extend the window for transplants. File image. Credit: Morsa Images/Getty Images

In the Netherlands, University Medical Centre Groningen’s Dr Robert J. Porte said, in an article published alongside the study, that the research has the potential to lead to new treatment strategies for people who have a heart attack or stroke.

“One could imagine that the OrganEx system (or components thereof) might be used to treat such people in an emergency,” Porte, who also was not involved in the research, said.

“Of note, though, more research will first be needed to confirm the safety of the system’s components in specific clinical situations.”

Latham said such a possibility was still a long way off.

“This idea of hooking up (a) person who had suffered ischemic injury, you know, someone who drowned or had a heart attack, I think is quite far away,” he said.

“The much more promising short-term potential use here is with organ preservation for transplant.”

The researchers used up to 100 pigs, which were under anaesthetic when the heart attack was induced.

The research also helps scientists better understand the process of death – something that is relatively understudied, Sestan said.

“Within minutes after the heart stops beating, there is a whole cascade of biochemical events triggered by a lack of blood flow, which is ischemia,” Sestan said.

“And what that leads (to) is that oxygen and nutrients that cells need for surviving, are stopped. And this begins to destroy cells.

“What we showed … is that this progression toward massive permanent cell failure, that does not happen so quickly that it cannot be averted, or possibly corrected.”

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Source: 7News