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Scientists revived the cells of pigs one hour after death, a potential organ transplant breakthrough

close up of a pig in a hay-lined pen

Scientists used something called OrganEx to revive cellular function in dead pigs.(Image credit: Catherine Falls Commercial via Getty Images)

The pigs had recently been dead for one hour, yet, the cells of these hearts, brains and livers were still kicking.

Because of a fresh system called OrganEx, scientists is now able to keep carefully the dying organs of recently deceased pigs alive by hooking the animals up to system of pumps, filters and flowing fluids. This process will not restore the animals’ brain function or pull the pigs back from the fantastic beyond; rather, it means that certain cellular functions in the animals’ vital organs continue.

Later on, the system may potentially be used to greatly help preserve and restore donated human organs destined for used in transplantation procedures, scientists reported in a fresh study, published Wednesday (August 3) in the journal Nature (opens in new tab). This technique could expand the amount of organs designed for transplant by reversing the consequences of ischemia where an organ suffers damage from inadequate blood flow and oxygen supply in donated organs.

And theoretically, this type of device may be found in living humans to take care of ischemia occurring throughout a stroke or heart attack, Dr. Robert Porte, a professor in the department of surgery at the University of Groningen in holland who was simply not mixed up in study, wrote within an accompanying commentary (opens in new tab) of the task.

However, the technology will not be put on living humans or donated organs any time in the future.

Related: Just how long can organs stay beyond your body before being transplanted?

“This is a long way away from used in humans,” Stephen Latham, director of the Yale Interdisciplinary Center for Bioethics and co-author of the analysis, told reporters in a news briefing on Tuesday (Aug. 2). The proof-of-concept experiment in pigs demonstrated that the OrganEx system can restore some cellular functions in a few organs after blood stopped flowing to those organs, however the amount of recovery differed between organs.

“We’d have to study [in] much more detail the amount to which ischemic damage is undone in various forms of organs before we’d be even near trying an experiment such as this on a individual who had suffered anoxic damage,” meaning organ damage from the insufficient oxygen, Latham said.

The team plans to review OrganEx in lots of more animal studies “before even considering translating” the technology to humans, Dr. David Andrijevic, a co-employee research scientist in neuroscience at the Yale School of Medicine and co-first writer of the analysis, said at the briefing.

How OrganEx works

The brand new research builds upon a previous study, published in 2019 in the journal Nature (opens in new tab), where the researchers used an inferior version of exactly the same system to revive some cellular and metabolic activity in the mind of a pig that were decapitated during food production.

This smaller system, called BrainEx, pumped a liquid chock-full of Hemopure a synthetic type of the protein hemoglobin, which carries oxygen in red blood cells through the brain’s arteries. The liquid also contained chemical substances designed to prevent blood clots from forming and cells from self-destructing by way of a process called “apoptosis.” Pumping this fluid through the mind prevented the organ from swelling, since it usually would after death, and allowed certain cellular functions to keep around four hours post-decapitation. (Importantly, the treated brain didn’t produce any electrical signals connected with normal brain function or “remnant awareness,” the authors confirmed.)

“Cells actually don’t die as quickly once we assume they do, which basically opens up a chance for intervention,” Dr. Zvonimir Vrselja, a co-employee research scientist in neuroscience at the Yale School of Medicine and co-first writer of the analysis, said at Tuesday’s press briefing. Quite simply, if scientists can part of soon enough, they are able to save some cells from certain doom.

Within their latest work, the team essentially scaled up their BrainEx system to perfuse a complete pig body simultaneously.

The scaled-up system runs on the device much like a heart-lung machine, which gets control the role of the center and lungs during surgeries by pumping blood and oxygen through your body. The team used this product to pump both pig blood and a modified version of these synthetic, cell-saving liquid through the deceased pigs’ bodies. Their synthetic solution contained 13 compounds designed to suppress inflammation, stop blood coagulum formation, prevent cell death and correct electrolyte imbalances that arise when ischemia sets in.

Related: Creating ‘universal’ transplant organs: New study moves us one step closer.

To check OrganEx, the team induced cardiac arrest in anesthetized pigs, and after one hour, they connected the animals to these devices. They compared the OrganEx-treated pigs to pigs treated having an extracorporeal membrane oxygenation system (ECMO), which only pumped oxygenated blood through the animals’ bodies.

After six hours, the team discovered that ECMO didn’t sufficiently perfuse all of the animals’ organs with blood and several arteries had collapsed, because they typically would after death; the ECMO-treated animals also showed extensive signs of hemorrhage and tissue swelling. In comparison, OrganEx reduced the amount of cell death and improved the preservation of tissues through the entire body.

Also, OrganEx-treated pigs showed signs of cellular repair unfolding in the mind, heart, lungs, liver, kidney and pancreas, and these vital organs retained certain cellular and metabolic functions on the six-hour experiment. The center, specifically, showed signs of electrical activity and could contract. Further study of the pigs’ hearts, kidneys and livers also revealed that specific genes involved with cellular repair have been activated in the organs, whereas they hadn’t in the ECMO-treated pigs.

“What this tells us is that the demise of cells could be halted and their functionality restored in multiple vital organs, even 1 hour after death,” Dr. Nenad Sestan, a professor of neuroscience at the Yale School of Medicine and the study’s senior author, said at the briefing.

The outcomes hint that, someday, OrganEx or the different parts of the system could possibly be applied in the treating ischemia and in the preservation of transplant organs, particularly regarding “donation after circulatory death,” where donated organs have already been deprived of the circulation of blood for quite a while ahead of transplant, Porte wrote in his commentary. But again, a lot more research is necessary prior to the system could be applied in either setting.

In follow-up work, the study team really wants to better know how, where also to what extent OrganEx restores cellular function in various animal organs. Furthermore, they’ll have to evaluate whether and how their synthetic solution must be adapted for used in human tissues. And ethical and practical concerns should be addressed before even considering utilizing the system in living humans, Latham said at the briefing.

“You need to consider, ‘What may be the state to which a individual will be restored should they have been seriously damaged by ischemia and you also gave them a perfusate that reversed some, however, not all, of this damage?'” he said. “The salvaging of organs, and the maintenance of organs for transplant, is I believe a much closer plus much more realistic clinical goal that may be predicated on this study.”

Originally published on Live Science.

Nicoletta Lanese

Nicoletta Lanese is really a staff writer for Live Science covering health insurance and medicine, alongside a variety of biology, animal, environment and climate stories. She holds degrees in neuroscience and dance from the University of Florida and a graduate certificate in science communication from the University of California, Santa Cruz. Her work has appeared in The Scientist Magazine, Science News, The San Jose Mercury News and Mongabay, among other outlets.

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