BU ethicist George Annas: finding raises ethical questions, could lead to new research protocols
Did researchers really bring dead pigs back to life? The headlines earlier this month didn’t say exactly that (the words “partly alive” were more frequently used), but the story still had the scientific community buzzing: Yale researchers had revived some cellular function in the brains of slaughtered swine—not enough to restore consciousness, they stress, but to a degree that left one ethics scholar pronouncing herself shocked, as she and colleagues raised ethical questions: Do animal research subjects need new protections if their brains can be resurrected? Is any brain revival possible for human patients, and if so, will their families hold off on approving organ donations where once they might not have? Will we experiment on dead people’s brains, requiring any new research restrictions?
George Annas, for one, is less than alarmed. A William Fairfield Warren Distinguished Professor and a School of Public Health professor of health law, ethics, and human rights, Annas says that adjectives like “shocked” in media reports likely suggest that the speaker “is not talking about science, but about hype and science fiction.”
The Yale researchers placed the dead pig brains in a chamber designed for the experiment and fed a mix of chemicals into important blood vessels for six hours. The procedure reduced tissue and cell deterioration and restored some molecular function, producing, in one researcher’s words, “not a living brain, but…a cellularly active brain.”
“The issue of trying to bring the dead back to life has been formidable at least since the publication of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein” in 1818, says Annas, who is also a School of Law and a School of Medicine professor. He discussed with BU Today the ethical issues involved in the experiment.
BU Today: What’s your reading of the scientific potential of this research, in terms of our ability to “cheat” mortality or at least to treat brain injuries?
Annas: Immortality—through keeping a human’s functioning brain “alive” in a jar—is related to this research only in the minds of extreme science fiction writers. First, this research involved keeping cells alive, not the whole brain, and it involved the cells of a pig, not a human. What the procedure created is a way to keep some brain cells alive for a longer period of time than previously thought possible, and this could lead to new research protocols on these cells.
Does this research mean we need to devise some new restrictions and protections? If so, which would you suggest?
There are restrictions on what can be done with dead human bodies. Mostly, they have to be buried or cremated; if used in research, the consent of the family is generally required—otherwise, we are engaged in some form of grave robbery. This research, of course, involved pigs, not humans, and once you decide it is acceptable to butcher and eat a pig, it is very difficult to make an argument that you need any special oversight to conduct a research project on one of the dead pig’s organs.
Even the argument that if we get more and more brain cells to function, they might cause the pig brain to “feel” pain seems to pale in the face of the way we now execute condemned prisoners, using a three-drug cocktail that virtually assures the condemned will suffer and not be able to express it [because the person is paralyzed].
Are we likely to see demands for more medical intervention by families of patients declared brain dead? Might this research raise families’ hopes unrealistically high?
Such concerns would be misplaced. This research in no way alters the definition of brain death (better expressed as “declaring death by brain criteria”), which involves a brain that has irreversibly ceased to function in any integrated manner: the current definition does not require the absence of any functioning at the cellular level, and is thus unaffected by this research.
Even in the infancy of this research, might it induce some people to hold off on donating the organs of loved ones for transplant, in hopes that medicine might someday restore their deceased family member?
It could. But I think it is always a mistake to see extreme research only or primarily through the lens of organ transplantation. We love organ transplantation, seeing it as a way of bringing life out of death, and tend to treat everything associated with transplantation (even the pig brain cell experiment?) as almost religiously blessed.
If we might induce pain or discomfort in animal subjects whose brains are sufficiently restored, are there immediate protections that should be implemented to ensure their humane treatment?
Peter Singer [Princeton professor emeritus and founder of the animal welfare movement] has always been right about this. The major worldwide issue of humane treatment of animals involves our diet of animals (including pigs) and the massive factory farms needed to supply our hunger. Having decapitated the pigs involved in the study, and shipped their dead bodies to the meat packing plant for processing, it must be some kind of cleansing ritual for people to be able to ignore the pig’s life and death, and only concentrate on treating what’s left of the pig’s brain in a “humane” way.