Researchers repaired cells in damaged pig organs an hour after death

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They then tested OrganEx’s efficacy by comparing pigs treated with it with pigs hooked up to a more traditional machine used by hospitals to save the lives of patients with severe heart and lung conditions by restoring their circulation, a process called extracorporeal membrane oxygenation (ECMO).

The organs treated with the OrganEx were found to have fewer signs of hemorrhage, cell damage or tissue swelling than those treated with ECMO. The researchers said this demonstrates the system can repair some functions in cells across multiple vital organs that would otherwise have died without their intervention. For example, the researchers observed how heart cells gathered from OrganEx pigs were contracting, but did not see the same contraction in samples from the ECMO group.

“These cells are functioning hours after they should not be, and what this tells us is that the demise of cells can be halted, and their functionality can be restored in multiple vital organs even one hour after death,” Nenad Sestan, professor of neurobiology at the Yale School of Medicine, told journalists on a briefing call. “But we don’t know whether these organs are transplantable.”

The research drew on a previous machine developed by the same team called BrainEx, used to partially revive pigs’ brains hours after death, which MIT Technology Review first reported in 2018. It also used a series of pumps and filters to mimic the rhythm of natural blood circulation, pumping a similar chemical mix through the pig’s brain’s blood vessels to restore oxygen flow to a dead brain up to six hours after death. It kept many of the cells inside the brain alive and functioning for more than a day, although the team did not detect any electrical brain activity that would suggest the brain had regained consciousness.

When a mammal’s blood flow becomes restricted, such as from a stroke or a heart attack, the lack of oxygen and nutrients it carries that cells need to survive causes them to die, and eventually results in tissue and organ death. After the heart stops beating, organs begin to swell, collapsing blood vessels and blocking circulation. The OrganEx perfusate fluid circumvents this because it cannot coagulate. Zvonimir Vrselja, an associate research neuroscientist at Yale School of Medicine who worked on the study, likened OrganEx to “ECMO on steroids.”

The findings, he said, suggested that cells don’t die as quickly as we assumed that they do, which opens up the possibility for interventions to, effectively, “tell them not to die.” 

“We showed that this progression towards massive permanent cell failure does not happen so quickly that it cannot be averted, or possibly corrected,” he added.


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