They then tested OrganEx’s efficacy by comparing pigs treated with it with pigs hooked up to a more traditional machine that hospitals use 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 shows the system can repair some functions in cells across multiple vital organs that would otherwise have died. For example, the researchers observed how heart cells gathered from OrganEx pigs were contracting, but they 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. BrainEx, used to partially revive pigs’ brains hours after death, was first reported by MIT Technology Review 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 blood vessels in a pig’s brain to restore oxygen flow to the organ up to six hours after the animal’s 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 after a stroke or a heart attack, cells die from lack of the oxygen and nutrients the blood carries; this 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, suggest that cells don’t die as quickly as we assumed they do, which opens up the possibility for interventions to, effectively, “tell them not to die.”
“We showed that this progression toward massive permanent cell failure does not happen so quickly that it cannot be averted, or possibly corrected,” he added.