Scientists have partially revived pig organs an hour after death.
The discovery has been described as “truly remarkable” and experts said that if the technology could be applied to humans, it could lead to thousands more organs being made available for transplant – potentially saving thousands of lives.
One commentator even suggested that in the future the technology has the potential to “bring people back to life many hours after death” by giving doctors crucial time to treat the underlying cause.
Researchers from the United States developed a specially designed cell-protecting fluid that appeared to prevent cell and organ death for at least an hour.
After death, a series of biochemical events occur due to a lack of blood flow, oxygen and nutrients that lead to the destruction of the body’s cells and organs.
The damage was thought to be rapid and permanent, but the researchers found that when the new liquid, called OrganEx, was applied to pigs, blood circulation and other cellular functions could be restored in the hours after death.
The researchers from Yale University said that if the finding was replicated in humans, it could potentially lead to a large expansion of the number of organs that can be used for transplantation.
In the UK alone, around 429 people died while waiting for an organ transplant last year.
The researchers carried out a similar experiment in 2019 on a pig brain, but now they have used the technology all over the body.
The technology consists of a device similar to heart-lung machines – which does the work of the heart and lungs during surgery and the experimental fluid containing compounds that can promote cellular health and suppress inflammation throughout the pig’s body.
Writing in the journal Nature, the researchers said that six hours after treatment with OrganEx, certain key cell functions were active in many areas of the pigs’ bodies – including the heart, liver and kidneys.
They also found that some organ function was restored – for example, they found evidence of electrical activity in the heart, which retained the ability to contract.
“We were also able to restore circulation throughout the body, which surprised us,” said Professor Nenad Sestan.
Normally, when the heart stops beating, organs begin to swell, collapsing blood vessels and blocking circulation, he said.
But circulation was restored and the organs in the deceased pigs that received the treatment appeared functional at the cellular and tissue level.
“Under the microscope, it was difficult to see the difference between a healthy organ and one that had been treated with OrganEx technology after death,” said associate professor researcher Zvonimir Vrselja.
The team also observed involuntary and spontaneous muscle movements in the head and neck regions when evaluating the treated animals, indicating preservation of some motor function.
In the future, the technology could potentially be used to extend the lifespan of organs in human patients and lead to more organ donations.
Commenting on the study, Dr Sam Parnia of the New York University Grossman School of Medicine said: “This is a truly remarkable and incredibly significant study.
“It shows 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.
“Therefore, by developing this system for organ preservation (in humans), doctors will in the near future be able to offer new treatments to preserve the organs post-mortem.
“This will allow access to many more organs for transplantation, which will lead to thousands of lives saved each year.
“Perhaps just as important is the fact that the OrganEx method can be used to preserve organs from people who have died but where the underlying cause of death can still be treated.
“Today this would include athletes who die suddenly from a heart defect, people who die from drowning, heart attacks or massive bleeding following trauma such as car accidents.
“The OrganEx system can preserve such people’s organs and prevent brain damage for hours in people after death. This would allow time for doctors to fix the underlying condition – for example, a blocked blood vessel in the heart that had led to a massive heart attack and death, or repair a torn blood vessel that had led to death from massive bleeding after trauma, restore organ function and bring such people return to life many hours after death.
“As such, otherwise healthy people, including athletes, who die but where the cause of death is at any time treatable, can potentially be brought back to life, and if the cause of death is untreatable, their organs can be treated. preserved to give life to thousands of people each year.”