Consider the pig – they have made the headlines and the cover of the two major American scientific journals in the last two years: first in Science when scientists led by George Church at MIT created humanised organs in pigs with CRISPR genome editing technology, raising spectre of Margaret Atwood’s “pigoons” , and this week in an article published in Nature, when scientists at Yale University described how they engineered a technology – which they named Brain Ex – which was able partially restore cellular functions in pigs severed heads several hours post mortem. The Italian saying, “nothing is thrown away of the pig”, seems to be most appropriate here.
While some commentators have rushed to write that the Yale experiments have huge implications for our understanding of ‘death’, this is incorrect. As a matter of fact, the BrainEx technology does not change our conception of death, at all. Legally, there are two types of death – cardiac death (absence of pulse) and brain death (defined in the UK, as absence of brainstem functions).
Brain death was established as a legal criterion of death fifty years ago, with a declaration of the World Medical Association in Sydney, and an Ad Hoc Report of the Harvard Committee. What the Yale scientists have been able to do with BrainEx technology is observe a decrease in cell death and some preservation in anatomical and neural cell integrity, in combination with the restoration of specific cellular functions, in the absence of global brain activity.
The 1968 Declaration of the World Medical Association included a paragraph which clearly stated that cellular function was not necessary for determination of death. (“Cessation of all life at a cellular level is not a necessary criterion for the determination of death”.) Fast forward fifty years, we have the BrainEx technology that allows us exactly to restore this cellular function, but this has no impact whatsoever on the legal determination of death.
In the West we have a brain-centric conception, which goes back to Descartes’ and the mind body duality, according to which the brain is where our human identity and essence lies. Think if instead of the brain we were talking about re-perfusing and reactivating some cellular function in another organ – if we had a LiverEx, or KidneyEx, or LungEx technology, would we make such a big deal out of it? Probably not. But, it would probably be more useful than the current technology, as it could be used to prolong the window of viable for organ transplantation for essential organs (currently, we don’t have brain transplants). As a matter of fact, it is questionable why the Yale scientists did not try their technology on other organs first, where the clinical applications in terms of organ transplantation would have been more straightforward. I suspect it is because the experiments would have had less of an impact, at least in this part of the world.
The Yale experiments only show us that some cellular function is reactivated a prolonged period post mortem – it is not that surprising as they would like us to believe that we are able to intervene aggressively with technology and restore some cellular function!
Indeed, the Italian Luigi Galvani in the late 18th century was conducting pioneer electrophysiology experiments on frogs, and showing that dissected legs of frogs in his laboratory at the University of Bologna seemed to jump to life under various conditions, because of signals going through their synaptic (neuronal) cells. His experiments demonstrated for the first time and the nervous system delivered animal electricity to muscle tissue, and inspired May Shelley to write her famous novel “Frankenstein”
, which by some commentators is now being used to refer to the experiments by the Yale team as “Frankenswine”. The poor Shelley is surely turning in her grave at seeing the latest mis-use of the name of her protagonist to refer to the experiments.
With an homage to David F. Wallace, we could say: consider, again, the pig: often killed, sometimes humanised, lately resuscitated. For the benefit of whom?
This post was written by Dr Silvia Camporesi. Dr Silvia Camporesi spoke to Adam Rutherford for BBC Inside Science about the experiments carried out by scientists at Yale University reanimating pigs’ heads. You can listen to the April 18th, 2019 episode of BBC Inside Science here: