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Scientists revive cells in dead pigs, raising questions about the definition of death

Chris Ratcliffe/Bloomberg via Getty Images

Fundamental notions about life and death may be changing, if new research out of Yale University is any indication.

Researchers at Yale recently were able to restore function to cells in organs of pigs that had just died. The findings were published this week in leading scientific journal Nature and raise significant ethical questions about the medical definition of death.

Using a specialized machine, the scientists injected a synthetic solution called OrganEx into the pigs. The pigs’ hearts began to beat, while cells in other organs — including the liver, kidneys, and brain — also began functioning again.

The research challenges the long-held idea that cell death is irreversible.

Nita Farahany, a neuroethicist at Duke University, called the experiments “stunning.” Farahany also noted that the research raises questions about the definition of death. “We presume death is a thing, it is a state of being,” she said. “Are there forms of death that are reversible? Or not?”

Dr. Nenad Sestan, professor of neuroscience, of comparative medicine, of genetics, and of psychiatry at the Yale School of Medicine, led the team performing the research. The researchers, according to the New York Times, say their goals are to “one day increase the supply of human organs for transplant by allowing doctors to obtain viable organs long after death.”

Yale has filed for a patent on the technology. Dr. Sestan stated that the next step will be to see if the organs function properly and could be successfully transplanted. The scientists also hope to test whether this technology can repair damaged hearts or brains.

This latest research is just the latest in a string of recent breakthroughs. In 2019, the same scientists were able to revive the disembodied brains of pigs four hours after the animals died, “calling into question the idea that brain death is final,” reports Nature.

Brendan Parent, a lawyer and ethicist who is director of transplant ethics and policy research at New York University’s Grossman School of Medicine, told the New York Times that the research is “weird but no different than what we went through with the development of the ventilator.”

“There is a whole population of people who in a different era might have been called dead,” Parent said.

The technology is preliminary, but some experts believe it could soon be significant enough to redefine how medicine defines death.

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