Tech able to keep heart, liver and kidney cells alive after death

Organ transplant breakthrough? Researchers develop compound that can maintain heart, liver and kidney cells for six hours after death – a tool that could quell a massive shortage

  • A Yale University team has developed OrganEx, a compound that can keep organs alive for up to six hours after death
  • They tested the compound of pigs that they had killed via inducing cardiac arrest
  • The compound showed the ability to prevent inflammation and blood vessel collapse that stops blood circulation and kills organs after death
  • Researchers are hopeful that their findings will open the door to make more human organs available in the future – quelling a national shortage 

A new technology can keep organ cells alive for hours after the rest of the body dies in a breakthrough that experts hope can quell the dire need for more transplantable hearts, kidneys and livers.

Researchers at Yale University developed ‘OrganEx’ – an offshoot of the breakthrough ‘BrainEx’ technology designed by scientists at the New Haven, Connecticut school in 2019. The device delivers fluid containing compounds that boost cellular health and prevent inflammation into the organs – keeping them alive for up to six hours after the rest of the body dies.

This research was performed on pigs, but the team is hopeful that their experimental process will be effective on human organs as well. If so, it could significantly boost the supply of available hearts, kidneys and livers for transplant – and even help extend the lives of some people stuck on the waiting list.

With more than 105,000 Americans waiting for an organ transplant – and 17 dying each day – researchers are hoping these findings can help improve and extend the lives of millions down the line.

A research team at Yale University found that a new compound OrganEx could maintain organs from a dead pig for up to six hours after death (file photo)

The research team, who published their findings on Wednesday in Nature, induced cardiac arrest on anesthetized pigs to determine how their bodily functions would react to the compound.

They used a device similar to machines that keep the heart and lungs pumping during surgery to prop the pigs’ organs while delivering them the substance.

Six hours after death, areas of key cell function were still active in the pigs’ bodies and some organ functioning had even been restored after death.

Two New York patients successfully receive pig organ transplants without showing signs of rejecting them

Doctors have made a break through in the practice of xenotransplantation after successfully importing two genetically engineered pig hearts into human bodies.

A team of surgeons at NYU Langone Health, in New York City, performed the operations on two patients that were brain dead but still breathing via life support on June 19 and July 9.

In both cases, the person’s body did not reject the heart and the pigs’ hearts operated as normal without the need of any machinery – unlike previous patients that experimented with similar transplants.

While the process of xenotransplantation – moving an organ from one species to another – is still in its early stages experts are hopeful that these types of breakthroughs will help close a shortage of available organs around the world, especially for children.

The transplants were carried out on two patients that were already considered medically deceased.

Their status makes them valuable to researchers as it allows them to perform experiments that may be too risky for a living subject, but on a person whose bodily operations are still somewhat functional.

Previous trials on living people have led to death. Earlier this year a 57-year old man who receive a pig heart transplant at the University of Maryland died 49 days after the operation after his body rejected the vital organ.  

For the NYU patients, hearts from pigs that had at least 10 genetic modifications were used.

‘We were also able to restore circulation throughout the body, which amazed us,’ Dr Nenad Sestan, a neuroscience professor at Yale who led the study, said in a statement. 

They also detected a return of electrical activity in the heart, allowing it to continue pumping.

Sestan explained that organs swell and blood vessels collapse when the heart stops – stopping the circulation of blood in the body as a result.

Pigs that received OrganEx did not show these same signs of collapse after receiving the treatment, though, keeping their organs functionable – a most importantly transplantable – as a result.

Some of the pigs’ motor functions were maintained as well, with the animals still spontaneously displaying muscle movement in the head and neck even after death.

These findings were built off of a medical breakthrough at Yale in 2019. A research team at the time was able to restore the brain functions of a pig four hours after it had died.

‘The intact brain of a large mammal retains a previously underappreciated capacity for restoration of circulation and certain molecular and cellular activities multiple hours after circulatory arrest,’ Sestan said in a statement at the time.

He then explained how the findings from the BrainEx experiment were applied to develop OrganEx: ‘If we were able to restore certain cellular functions in the dead brain, an organ known to be most susceptible to ischemia [inadequate blood supply], we hypothesized that something similar could also be achieved in other vital transplantable organs.’ 

The research team is hopeful their findings will allow for a massive expansion in the number of organ transplants performed every year.

When a person dies, there is a limited period of time where their organs are harvestable. Depending on the cause of death, some of their organs may be deemed unusable all-together.

Maintaining and even potentially repairing organs using this new technology will open many doors for transplantation.

Researchers are also hopeful that OrganEx can be valuable before a person dies, and help expand the life-span of a person’s organs who currently needs a transplant. 

This could help prevent some of the 17 daily deaths waiting for organs each day in America. 

‘There are numerous potential applications of this exciting new technology… however, we need to maintain careful oversight of all future studies, particularly any that include perfusion of the brain,’ Dr Stephen Latham, director of the Yale Interdisciplinary Center for Bioethics, said.

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