The “resuscitation” of dead pigs, promise of progress and source of questions

Scientists succeeded on Wednesday in reviving blood circulation and functioning, for a few hours, in the body cells of dead pigs. This medical work is the promise of significant progress on the surgical front. But if science has yet to resurrect pigs, a phenomenon observed during the experiment opens the door to dizzying potential.

A story of living pigs. Despite the cold like death, the pigs were brought back to a form of life, their organic functions were restored, Wednesday, August 3, by American researchers.

In 2019, these same scientists shocked the medical world by managing to restore brain cell function in pigs, a few hours after their amputation.

In their latest research, published Wednesday in the journal Nature, the team took the bet even further, extending this technique to the entire animal body.

They cause heart attacks in anesthetized pigs, stopping blood flow and depriving their cells of oxygen – without oxygen, mammalian cells die.

After an hour, they injected the corpses with a liquid containing pigs’ blood (taken from their lives) and a synthetic form of hemoglobin – the protein that carries oxygen in red blood cells. As well as drugs that protect cells and prevent the formation of blood clots.

Blood begins to flow again and many cells begin to function again, including in vital organs such as the heart, liver and kidneys, over the next six hours.

Development of the bank of transplantable organs

Good news for surgery: vital organs can be “reanimated” for transplant. Because until now, beyond a few minutes of circulatory arrest, the organs cannot be transplanted, explains Doctor Jean-Etienne Bazin, head of the perioperative medicine center at the Clermont-Ferrand University Hospital.

“However, the pigs’ cells work hours later, when they shouldn’t be working,” said Nenad Sestan, lead author of the study and researcher at Yale University, in a press briefing.

OrganEx – this is the name of this technique – “enables us to enrich the bank of transplantable organs”, rejoices Jean-Etienne Bazin. This may save the lives of people waiting for a transplant.

What is death?

For Sam Parnia, from the medicine department of the same university, this “very unique” study also shows that “death is a biological process that can be treated and reversed hours later”.

So it is necessary to change the medical definition of death, said Benjamin Curtis, a philosopher specializing in behavior at Nottingham Trent University in Britain.

“Because of this study, many processes we thought were irreversible,” he told AFP. “And, according to the current medical definition of death, a person may not be truly dead for hours,” with some processes continuing for a period beyond the cessation of bodily functions.

Philippe Bizouarn, anesthesiologist-resuscitator at Nantes University Hospital, is never surprised: “The death of a person is not in his cells”.

In the Monts d’Arrée, where this Breton during the fires that destroyed the forest of his childhood, “a green grass appeared under the ashes. Like the cells of a lifeless body, the seed revived under the remains of a completely calcined plants”, explained the doctor in an effort to popularize.

Too early for philosophy?

But “beware of fantasies,” warns Dr. Bizouarn, for whom these pigs are not “raised”. In short, for the anesthesiologist, science does not raise the dead.

But “as usual, this experience will be taken by transhumanist groups like Google X Lab”, sighs Philippe Bizouarn.

In fact, almost never revealed to the public, the experience has already raised many ethical and even philosophical questions.

Even if science fiction helps to “ask us the right bioethical questions”, it, in this case, has no place for the doctor to date: Among those who promote these controversies, many there is, according to him, “no idea of ​​what is happening in medical reality”.


Far from sensationalism, however, a reaction observed during the pig experiment raises more questions than it answers: a very large majority of the animals make strong movements of their head and neck, according to according to Stephen Latham, one of the study’s authors. “It was quite surprising to the people in the room,” he told reporters.

If the origin of these movements remains unknown, the scientist assures that there is no time with electrical activity recorded in the brain of pigs – thus excluding, a priori, a recovery of consciousness.

These head movements are nevertheless “a major concern”, believes Benjamin Curtis, because recent neuroscience research suggests that “conscious experience can continue even when the electrical activity of the brain is not measurable”.

And doctor Jean-Etienne Bazin to explain another variable: during the experiment, the anesthesia or hypothermia of the animals prevent the electrical activity, and thus distort the diagnosis.

So an unresolved question, continues the doctor-professor: how to interpret the movements of these pigs? Is it “simply” the result of motor stimuli that the spinal cord “automatically” sends, or the conscious commands of their brain, which wakes up? For this scientist, who cannot completely invalidate this last event, that is “unusual”.

His colleague, Philippe Bizouarn, understands the hopes that such a potential can generate, but “deep down, fortunately, death is in front of us, otherwise we will not live,” the philosophy of the doctor .

To be born again or not to be born again? Maybe that’s not the question.

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