The technique that ‘resurrects’ pig organs and could revolutionize transplants



Photo: Getty Images / BBC News Brazil

Pig organs were partially resuscitated an hour after the animals died, in a breakthrough with the potential to transform medicine, according to US researchers.

The technique could increase the number of organs available for transplantation and give doctors more time to save a life if the procedure is performed on people.

The study also challenges assumptions about what happens in the moments between life and death.

When the heart stops beating, the body runs out of oxygen and the nutrients it needs to survive. Organs increase in size, blood vessels collapse, and cells begin to die.

This cell death was believed to be rapid and permanent, but researchers at Yale University in the United States undid some of this damage in animals that had been dead for an hour.

“We can restore some functions of cells, in various vital organs, that were thought to be dead. These cells are working hours later than they ‘should not’ be,” said Professor Nenad Sestan.

From brain to body

The research team performed a similar feat only on pig brains in 2019. Now they’ve adapted their technology – called OrganEx – to work throughout the body.

The technique uses:

  • A synthetic blood to carry oxygen around the body. The use prevents clotting, so blood can travel through the collapsing blood vessels inside the pig;
  • A cocktail of 13 compounds to stop the chemical processes that culminate in cell death (known as apoptosis) and calm the immune system;
  • A device for rhythmically pumping fluid around the body to mimic the pulse of a beating heart.

The experiments, published in the scientific journal Nature, involved about 100 pigs and received ethical approval before proceeding.

Scientists deeply anesthetized the animals and then stopped their hearts. After being dead for an hour, they were connected to the system OrganEx and received the restorative cocktail for six hours. The anesthetic was maintained throughout the experiment.

After the six hours, the scientists dissected the pigs’ organs, such as the heart, liver and kidneys, and showed that they were partially revived with some functions restored.

There was restoration of electrical activity in the heart and some heart muscle cells were able to contract. However, the organs were not functioning at the same level as before death.

“Things are not as dead as we previously assumed – we have demonstrated that we can actually initiate cell repair at a molecular level. We can induce cells not to die,” said researcher Zvonimir Vrselja.

At one point, the pigs’ heads and necks began to move spontaneously. It could be a sign that they were regaining some motor function, but this will need further investigation.

Neuroscientist David Andrijevic said it was a “pretty surprising moment”. However, he said it was “not indicative of any mental activity on the pig’s part”.

As with the experiment in 2019, there was evidence of repair in the brain. But there were no brain waves or electrical activity to suggest consciousness or awareness.

Medical advancement?

Much more research will be needed before the technology can be adapted for use in people.

However, the initial objective is to preserve the transplanted organs for longer, so that they can reach the patients who need them.

“I think the technology is very promising for our ability to preserve organs after they are removed from a donor,” said Stephen Latham, director of the Interdisciplinary Center for Bioethics at Yale.

More distant ambitions include making even more organ donors suitable after death and even as treatment.

Commenting on the study, Sam Parnia, director of critical care and resuscitation research at New York University, said the study is “truly remarkable and incredibly significant” and could help explain reports of near-death experiences.

He said the technology could also be used to buy doctors more time to treat people whose bodies are lacking oxygen, such as those who have died from drowning or heart attacks.

He added that it could “bring these people back to life many hours after death.”

– This text was published in

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