In a feat that blurs the boundary between life and death, researchers have restored some cell function in the organs of dead pigs. Hopes for a future medical breakthrough that could save thousands of lives were sparked by the achievement.

The pigs were connected to OrganEx one hour after death. The pigs' organs were flushed with blood in order to restore function.

The pigs' hearts were able to pump blood, indicating renewed electrical activity, and restoring full blood circulation. There wasn't any activity in the brain. The scientists say they have found a previously unknown capacity for mammal cells to recover.

Zvonimir Vrselja, a neuroscientist on the research team at Yale, said that cells don't die as quickly as they were thought to. We might be able to tell them not to die.

The ability to preserve more human organs for donation after death could save thousands of lives. Life-support treatment could be changed by the technology. The discovery could pave the way for people to be brought back to life after they die.

"Death is not an instantaneous event, but rather a gradual process, and we have gained a further tool to nudging it," said a neuroscience researcher who was not involved in the study.

A research group created a system called BrainEx. The brains of dead pigs were restored four hours after they were decapitated.

Death is more reversible than scientists thought

electrocardiogram shows mostly flat heartbeat with image of muted cells on the left versus clear heartbeat and bright cells on the right
Representative images of electrocardiogram tracings in the heart (top), immunostainings for albumin in the liver in organs perfused by ECMO, left, and OrganEx, right.
David Andrijevic, Zvonimir Vrselja, Taras Lysyy, Shupei Zhang; Sestan Laboratory; Yale School of Medicine

One day, the OrganEx process could save people who die from a variety of causes, according to Dr. Sam Parnia.

Doctors have time to repair the torn vessel that caused the patient to bleed out if the organ tissues are preserved.

Athletes who die can potentially be brought back to life if the cause of death is not life threatening. Their organs can be preserved to give life to thousands of people every year if the cause of death is not treated.

He said that death is a biological process that can be treated and reversed for hours after it happens.

The researchers from Yale warned against getting too excited about life after death.

It doesn't restore all function in all organs and is very far away from use in humans.

Better organ preservation could save thousands of lives

When a heart stops beating it causes other organs to swell.

By preventing swelling and restoring full circulation, the new OrganEx technology could one day allow organs from healthy people who have died to be salvaged. Thousands of people who die on transplant waiting lists could be saved if more organ donations were allowed.

Researchers will be able to restore organ cell function thanks to this newfound capacity.

When a patient's heart or lungs stop working, hospitals use a technique called extracorporeal membrane oxygenation to flush blood through the damaged organ. Some smaller blood vessels collapse whenECMO fails to fully saturate organs with blood, as it slows the death of cells.

three medical staff in protective plastic suits masks operate machine and tubes connected to a patient lying flat
Medical staff in protective suits treat a COVID-19 patient on extracorporeal membrane oxygenation (ECMO) treatment, in the Intensive Care Unit at Havelhoehe community hospital in Berlin, Germany, on December 6, 2021.
Fabrizio Bensch/Reuters

In a new study, OrganEx performed better than ECMO. The organs appeared to be flushed with blood and oxygenated. The researchers were able to observe the expression of genes in certain cells.

It takes a lot of research to make more effective life support, revive people whose blood has stopped, and preserve more organs for transplant. They have ethical implications as well.

As technology improves, we may find more ways of keeping bodies alive, despite being unable to revive the person we really care about. There is a lot of work to be done on how to get people back from the brink.