From Frankenstein to Game of Thrones, the potential to reverse death has captured our imaginations. Now researchers are hoping to use stem cells along with other techniques to make reversing brain death a reality.
The new research comes from biotechnology companies Bioquark, Inc., based in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, and Revita Life Sciences, based in India, in a a venture they have named the ReAnima Project. The companies announced May 4th that they have received approval from the Institutional Review Board (IRB) for their clinical trials. The trials are set to take place at the Anupam Hospital in Rudrapur, India.
The researchers were inspired by other animals like salamanders, which can regenerate their central nervous system using stem cells after they experience a traumatic brain injury. Humans do not have this same ability, but the researchers believe that with the help of stem cells, humans just might be able to regenerate their brain after all.
Even when humans are brain dead, they may still have some blood flow and electrical activity in their brain, although their neurotransmitters begin to disappear. The theory is that by applying stem cells to the brain, the researchers could regenerate these neurotransmitters, allowing the brain to again transmit signals that control processes like body movement.
For Phase I of the trial, the researchers will use twenty people who died after receiving a traumatic brain injury and who are being kept alive by life support. Soon after the individuals are declared dead, the researchers will apply stem cells and peptide extracts to the brain. The researchers will then use laser therapy and nerve stimulators to try and give a boost to the brain, hopefully helping the brain cells begin functioning. The experiments will last for fifteen days and are set to wrap up in April 2017.
For ethical reasons, the researchers had to obtain special permission before performing their study. They will also use patients who are not candidates for organ transplant, so that they are not tying up organs that are urgently needed to save other lives.
Although someone in a vegetative coma could suddenly wake up on their own one day, the same is not true for someone who is brain dead. Doctors define brain death as the complete and irreversible end to brain function. Although someone who is brain dead may still have bodily functions such as food digestion and circulation, they are effectively dead, with no coming back.
The researchers are hoping to show that brain death may not always be final. In their planned study, the researchers would not be bringing the patients literally back to life, although they hope to show that it is possible as a proof of concept. Their research could offer insights into brain death, and could even help better understand vegetative comas, Alzheimer’s, and other medical issues involving the brain. Some day in the future, though, humans may actually reverse death.
The study does bring up some concerns. When someone’s loved one is declared brain dead but is kept alive by life support, they may have trouble letting go when it seems that their loved one is still alive. This research offers hope that in future situations, these patients could indeed be brought back. However, some wonder if people who were brought back in this manner would be the same person they were before death. There is no way of knowing whether all their memories and personality would still be intact, if they would have partial memory loss, or if their brain would be a clean slate.
For now, the researchers say they will not bring any of the patients fully back to life. As research progresses, researchers may one day face this ethical dilemma, though. The Bioquark scientists remain confident that their research could one day make reviving people from brain death as commonplace as restarting hearts after a heart attack.