They then tested OrganEx’s effectiveness by comparing pigs treated with it to pigs connected to a more traditional machine that hospitals use to save the lives of patients with severe heart and lung disease by restoring their circulation, a process called extracorporeal membrane oxygenation (ECMO).
OrganEx-treated organs were found to have fewer signs of bleeding, cell damage, or tissue swelling than those treated with ECMO. The researchers said this shows that the system can repair some functions of cells across multiple vital organs that would otherwise have died. For example, the researchers observed how heart cells collected from the OrganEx pigs were contracting, but did not see the same contraction in samples from the ECMO group.
“These cells are working hours after they shouldn’t be working, and what this tells us is that the death of the cells can be stopped and their functionality can be restored, in multiple vital organs for even an hour after death,” Nenad Sestan, a professor of neurobiology at Yale School of Medicine, told reporters on a news call. “But we don’t know if these organs are transplantable.”
The research was based on an earlier machine developed by the same team. BrainEx, used to partially revive the brains of pigs 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 mixture 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 to suggest the brain had regained consciousness.
When a mammal’s blood flow is restricted, such as after a stroke or heart attack, cells die from lack of oxygen and nutrients carried by the blood; this eventually leads to the death of tissues and organs. When the heart stops beating, the organs begin to swell, collapsing blood vessels and blocking circulation. OrganEx perfused fluid prevents this because it cannot clot. Zvonimir Vrselja, an associate neuroscientist at Yale School of Medicine who worked on the study, compared OrganEx to “ECMO on steroids.”
The findings, he said, suggest that cells don’t die as quickly as we thought they do, opening up the possibility of interventions to effectively “tell them not to die.”
“We have shown that this progression to massive permanent cell failure does not occur so rapidly that it cannot be prevented or possibly corrected,” he added.