'Resuscitate' dead pigs, a promise of progress and a source of questions

‘Resuscitate’ dead pigs, a promise of progress and a source of questions

On Wednesday, scientists succeeded in reviving the blood circulation and the work of cells in the bodies of deceased pigs, for a few hours. This medical feat holds the promise of major advances in surgery. But if science has never resurrected pigs, a phenomenon observed during the experiment leaves the door open to amazing possibilities.

Live pig story. With pigs as cold as death, pigs were brought back to some form of life, and US researchers restored their organ functions, Wednesday, August 3.

Already in 2019, these same scientists have already astounded the medical world by managing to restore cell function in pig brains, just hours after they were beheaded.

In their latest research, published Wednesday in the journal Nature, the team takes the bet even further, extending the technology to the animal’s entire body.

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

An hour later, they injected the carcasses with a fluid containing pig blood (taken from their living) and a synthetic form of hemoglobin – the oxygen-carrying protein in red blood cells. As well as drugs that protect cells and prevent the formation of blood clots.

The blood began to flow again and many cells began to function again, including vital organs such as the heart, liver and kidneys, over the next six hours.

Enriching the Bank of Implantable Organs

Good news for surgery: Vital organs for transplant can be ‘resurrected’. Because even now, a few minutes after the blood circulation has stopped, it is no longer possible to transplant organs, explains Dr. Jean-Etienne Bazin, Head of the Center for Surgical Medicine at Clermont-Ferrand University Hospital.

“However, the pig cells were working after hours, when they weren’t supposed to,” said Nenad Sestan, lead author of the study and a researcher at Yale University, during a press conference.

Jean-Etienne Bazin “OrganEx” – that’s the name of this technique – rejoices – “It can thus enable us to enrich the bank of transplantable organs”, and this could save the lives of people waiting for a transplant.

What is death?

For Sam Barnea, of the Department of Medicine at the same university, this “really fascinating” study also shows that “death is a biological process that is treatable and reversible after hours.”

Benjamin Curtis, a philosopher specializing in ethics at Britain’s Nottingham Trent University, said the medical definition of death may need updating.

“In light of this study, many of the processes we thought were irreversible would not be reversible,” he told AFP. “And according to the current medical definition of death, a person may not really be dead for hours,” with some processes continuing for a period after bodily functions have ceased.

Philippe Bezoarn, anesthetist and resuscitator at the University Hospital of Nantes, is in no way surprised: “The death of a person is not the death of his cells.”

In Monts d’Arrée, where this Breton was during the fires that devastated the forests of his childhood, “green grass appeared under the ashes. Like cells in an inanimate body, the seeds came back to life under the completely charred remains of plants,” explains the doctor in an attempt to spread it.

Is it still too early for philosophy?

But ‘beware of illusions,’ warns Dr. Bezoarn, for whom these pigs have not been ‘returned to life’, ‘let us rather say that we have been able to restore their organs to function.’ In short, for the anesthesiologist, science does not raise the dead.

But “as usual, transhumanist groups like Google X Lab” will dominate this experiment, sighs Philip Bezoarn.

In fact, barely revealed to the public, this experience already raises countless ethical and even philosophical questions.

Even if science fiction helps us “ask the right questions about bioethics,” these, in this case, have no place for a doctor yet. What is actually happening medically.”


Beyond excitement, the reaction observed during the pigs’ experiment raises more questions than it answers: A very large majority of the animals made vigorous head and neck movements, according to Stephen Latham, one of the study’s authors. “It was very surprising to whoever was in the room,” he told reporters.

If the origin of these movements remains unknown, the scientist has confirmed that no electrical activity was ever recorded in pigs’ brains – thus ruling out, a priori, the restoration of consciousness.

Benjamin Curtis believes that these head movements are “a major concern,” because recent neuroscience research suggests that “a conscious experience can persist even when electrical activity in the brain cannot be measured.”

Dr. Jean-Etienne Bazin explained another variable: During the experiment, anesthesia or hypothermia of the animals could dampen electrical activity, thus distorting the diagnosis.

Hence the unresolved question remains, the Professor continues: How do we explain the movements of these pigs? Was it “simply” the outgrowth of motor stimuli that the spinal cord “automatically” sent, or the conscious commands of their brains that were to wake up? For this scientist, not being able to absolutely negate this last possibility is what is “extraordinary”.

His colleague, Philip Bezoarn, is aware of the hopes such a possibility can generate, but “death is deep within us, fortunately, ahead, otherwise we would not be able to live,” the doctor philosophizes.

To be born again or not to be born again? This may not be the question.

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