Could scientists use stem cells to reverse death?

Researchers at Bioquark have begun controversial trials that attempt to use stem cells to revitalise brain-dead patients.

If successful, the trials will determine ways to bring clinically brain dead patients back to life. Such trials were previously shut down when attempted in India, after regulators took issue with the ethical ramifications of the experiments. In spite of this, experts believe the proposed trials conducted by Bioquark will be markedly similar should they be allowed to take place later in the year.  

What do the trials involve?  

The scrapped plans in India involved 20 patients, who would undergo a series of processes starting with stem cell injection.

Stem cells will be harvested from the patient before being blended with protein, after which point they will be injected in the patient’s spinal cord. Assuming the US-based Bioquark trials will follow suit, the expected participation and processes are the same. Once the injections are in the spinal cord, it is expected that new neurons will develop, and these neurons will be supported and stimulated through the use of treatments such as laser therapy. During this time, researchers will be monitoring the effect this stimulation has to see if there are any changes.

Will it work?

The stimulation of nerves has been tested before in patients who are in comas.

Critics of the trials have been quick to point out that while there has been some notable changes, the status of a patient in a coma versus being declared brain dead is very different. Past research has also shown that the number of brain dead patients regaining function has been zero across a number of different studies. “In adults, there are no published reports of recovery of neurologic function after a diagnosis of brain death using the criteria reviewed in the 1995 American Academy of Neurology practice parameter,” reads the report. “Complex-spontaneous motor movements and false-positive triggering of the ventilator may occur in patients who are brain dead. There is insufficient evidence to determine the minimally acceptable observation period to ensure that neurologic functions have ceased irreversibly. Apneic oxygenation diffusion to determine apnea is safe, but there is insufficient evidence to determine the comparative safety of techniques used for apnea testing. There is insufficient evidence to determine if newer ancillary tests accurately confirm the cessation of function of the entire brain.”

“Dead means dead”

There are also questions about the legalities of consent for the trials, which has been touched upon by experts in the past. In a paper entitled “Response to a trial on reversal of Death by Neurologic Criteria”, authored by Neurologist Ariane K. Lewis, MD, and Professor of Bioethics Arthur L. Caplan, Ph.D., the response to the trials was one of heavy criticism.

“Biomedical science is based upon a quest for knowledge through observation and experimentation. Bioquark’s study allegedly seeks to facilitate this quest. However, scientific inquiry cannot be haphazard, and human studies must be evidence-based and adhere to standards and regulations,” it reads. “Because this trial borders on quackery yet has been well-publicized [2], it is the responsibility of the academic community to facilitate a public dialogue about its scientific and ethical shortcomings. Dead means dead. Proposing that DNC may not be final openly challenges the medical-legal definition of death, creates room for the exploitation of grieving family and friends and falsely suggests science where none exists [3]