BrainEx technology: Consider the pig – killed, humanised, resuscitated, for the benefit of whom?

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” , 57578698_2057650081000436_7939556395970461696_o 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!


Luigi Galvani’s electro-physiology experiments in Bologna, 1791

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:

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Bioethics & Society alumni series – featuring Gemma McKenzie, ESCR funded PhD candidate at King’s

Gemma McKenzie 2019

Gemma McKenzie, PhD candidate in the Department of Nursing at King’s

Gemma McKenzie (Bioethics & Society, class of 2017) is an ESRC funded PhD candidate at King’s (Department of Nursing) exploring women’s narratives of freebirthing in the UK.

“I first had the idea for my PhD subject when I was working in an entirely different and unrelated career. However, I had no academic contacts, no bioethics background and no idea where to start when searching for funding. I contacted Silvia and immediately knew that a post graduate qualification in Bioethics and Society at King’s would provide me with a solid foundation of knowledge, while also offering me the opportunity to explore my own interests in bioethical issues relating to pregnancy and birth.

The course enabled me to make valuable contacts and refine my ideas. Silvia was a fantastic support in helping me put together my funding application and successfully win a four year scholarship to pursue my research idea.

It has been two years since I graduated, but I still regularly rely on the knowledge I gained from Bioethics and Society, and Silvia continues to be a great support as I pursue my academic career.”

Gemma has undergraduate and postgraduate degrees in law and has previously worked in the legal sector in the UK and abroad. She completed her Bioethics and Society postgraduate certificate in 2017 and is currently in the second year of her ESRC funded PhD at the Florence Nightingale School of Midwifery, Nursing and Palliative Care at King’s.

Applications for the Bioethics & Society MSc for entry September 2019 are open. For info contact Dr Silvia Camporesi.

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2019 Bioethics & Society alumni series – Featuring Richard Gibson, PhD candidate in Bioethics & Medical Jurisprudence at the University of Manchester


Richard Gibson

Richard Gibson, Bioethics & Society alumnus (class of 2016), currently a PhD student and Graduate Teaching Assistant in the School of Law at the University of Manchester, UK, says about the programme:

“Before undertaking the MA in Bioethics & Society, my primary academic interest revolved around the ethical and social implications of radical human enhancement. However, as the course progressed I found the inverse of such a topic to be more interesting; not questions of how science and technology can make people ‘better’ than healthy, but rather, how do we understand what it is to be healthy in the first place, and specifically, how the idea of ‘the normal’ influences such a concept. This newfound approach stuck with me throughout the MA, and I found it to be such a rewarding approach that it now forms the foundation of my PhD thesis. In short, my PhD examines the ethical, social, and legal implications of providing therapeutic, elective healthy limb amputation in cases of Body Integrity Identity Disorder. To do this, I primarily use the work of Georges Canguilhem, as well as theoretical analysis from principlism, disability theory, and the medical humanities. Pretty much every aspect of my PhD, in one way or another, draws from the knowledge and skills I gained during my time at King’s, courtesy of the Bioethics & Society programme. Due to the course being based in a social science department, the variety of subjects, authors, approaches, and schools of thought which are drawn upon is excellent as well as unique. King’s itself has a vibrant research culture in which those on the MA were wholeheartedly encouraged to participate. And, as a result of the university’s central London situation, it provides students with unique opportunities to apply their research in the broader societal and policy capacity, as well as drawing the highest quality staff, both visiting and permanent. It is safe to say that without the Bioethics & Society MA, I wouldn’t be doing a PhD in a subject I find captivating, teaching at a Russel Group University, or giving both domestic and overseas presentations. To conclude, I cannot recommend the course, nor endorse the hard work of Silvia Camporesi and the others that make the programme possible, highly enough”.

You can follow Richard on Twitter: @RichardBGibson

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Gerontology MSc alumni Rochelle Amour discusses her work on dementia in the Caribbean

The MSc programme is a good idea for both clinical and non-clinical professionals. I’m a Caribbean national with a background in psychology and writing, who enrolled at IoG because I was interested in ageing policy. I found the programme extraordinarily strategic. I met guest lecturers from international NGO’s, universities and local hospitals who offered insight on issues applicable to my region. I also learned from my peers. I sat in classes with doctors, nurses and allied health professionals and gained insight into their work with older patients.
Ageing is an extremely diverse and interconnected issue- the teaching staff at IoG gets this. My interest in policy was supported by robust training in research, as, of course, the two go hand in hand. My lecturers were progressive and very supportive, making themselves available when needed so I could do well, despite my initial aversion to statistics.
After completing my programme and returning to Trinidad, where there was very little awareness of ageing issues, I co-founded a company with a local clinician. We worked with other local professionals to offer multi-disciplinary services like retirement seminars, dementia care training and awareness campaigns.  This work eventually led to an offer from the Caribbean Institute for Health Research, University of the West Indies, Mona, Jamaica, where I now serve as a Research Fellow on the STRiDE dementia project.
STRiDE- Strengthening responses to dementia in developing countries– is a multidisciplinary research study being conducted in seven developing countries. Jamaica is the only Caribbean site. The project is funded by the Global Challenges Research Fund, UK and is being led by the London School of Economics, with a colleague from King’s College London serving on the project’s international advisory group(!)
In terms of my writing, I continue to flex those muscles in guest blog posts for the International Longevity Centre, UK and in my work with Alzheimer’s Jamaica. And in terms of other international opportunities, I’ve been able to present at conferences like the International Federation on Ageing’s Global Conference in Toronto, and have recently returned from an incredible STRiDE team meeting in South Africa. My MSc programme undoubtedly provided a strong base for me in terms of networking, competencies and international perspectives. I suspect it can do the same for you, too.
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New Videos: Discover Global Health & Social Medicine at King’s

Discover our Global Health & Social Justice MSc:

& learn more about Gerontology here at King’s:

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