Bioquark is about to begin a trial that will attempt to bring brain-dead patients back to life using stem cells. However, the trial is raising numerous scientific and ethical questions for other experts in the field.
BACK FROM THE DEAD
Researchers seem to be setting their sights on increasingly lofty goals when it comes to the human body – from the world’s first human head transplant, to fighting aging, and now reversing death altogether. Yes, you read that right. A company called Bioquark hopes to bring people who have been declared clinically brain-dead back to life. The Philadelphia-based biotech company is expected to start on the project later this year.
This trial was originally intended to go forward in 2016 in India, but regulators shut it down. Assuming this plan will be substantially similar, it will enroll 20 patients who will undergo various treatments. The stem cell injection will come first, with the stem cells isolated from that patient’s own blood or fat. Next, the protein blend gets injected directly into the spinal cord, which is intended to foster growth of new neurons. The laser therapy and nerve stimulation follow for 15 days, with the aim of prompting the neurons to make connections. Meanwhile, the researchers will monitor both behavior and EEGs for any signs of the treatment causing any changes.
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While there is some basis in science for each step in the process, the entire regimen is under major scrutiny. The electrical stimulation of the median nerve has been tested, but most evidence exists in the form of case studies. Dr. Ed Cooper has described dozens of these cases, and indicates that the technique can have some limited success in some patients in comas. However, comas and brain death are very different, and Bioquark’s process raises more questions for most researchers than it answers.
One issue researchers are raising about this study is informed consent. How can participants in the trial consent, and how should researchers complete their trial paperwork – given that the participants are legally dead —and how can brain death be conclusively confirmed, anyway? What would happen if any brain activity did return, and what would the patient’s mental state be? Could anything beyond extreme brain damage even be possible?
As reported by Stat News, In 2016, neurologist Dr. Ariane Lewis and bioethicist Arthur Caplan wrote in Critical Care that the trial is “dubious,” “has no scientific foundation,” and suffers from an “at best, ethically questionable, and at worst, outright unethical nature.” According to Stat News, despite his earlier work with electrical stimulation of the median nerve, Dr. Cooper also doubts Bioquark’s method, and feels “there is no way this technique could work on someone who is brain-dead. The technique, he said, relies on there being a functional brain stem — one of the structures that most motor neurons go through before connecting with the cortex proper. If there’s no functional brain stem, then it can’t work.”
Pediatric surgeon Charles Cox, who is not involved in Bioquark’s work, agrees with Cooper, commenting to Stat News on Bioquark’s full protocol, “it’s not the absolute craziest thing I’ve ever heard, but I think the probability of that working is next to zero. I think [someone reviving] would technically be a miracle.”
Pastor remains optimistic about Bioquark’s protocol. “I give us a pretty good chance,” he said. “I just think it’s a matter of putting it all together and getting the right people and the right minds on it.”
References: Scientific American, Science, Stat News, Critical Care