Company Gets Approval for Trial of New Drug That Could Reverse “Brain Death” in Patients

Bioethics   |   Wesley Smith   |   Apr 27, 2016   |   12:09PM   |   Washington, DC

There is only one type of death but two means of declaring a person “dead.”

One is the irreversible cessation of cardio/pulmonary function. Let’s call that “heart death.” The other is total brain failure, or the irreversible cessation of the brain–and all of its constituent–parts as a brain. This is popularly known as “brain death.” 

Neither means that all the cells in the brain or body are dead. The key question is irreversible cessation of essential function.

Now, the CEO of a company called Bioquark writes me to tell me that his company has been given the go-ahead by a university ethics committee to commence “the first trial of its kind and a step towards the reversal of death.” From the NIH summary:

This is the proof of concept study with multi-modality approach (using intra-thecal bioactive peptides, stem cells, laser and transcranial IV laser and Median Nerve stimulation as adjuvants) in cases of brain death due to traumatic brain injury having diffuse axonal injury to document possibility of reversal of brain death (BD).

Here is the company press release.

A few points. First, this will apparently take place in India, not at Harvard, the Mayo Clinic, or Oxford. I don’t mean that as an insult, but I tend to be more skeptical of studies done in more remote places.

Second, it seems more likely that these interventions, if successful, will not “reverse death,” but potentially treat profound brain injury.

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Finally, if brain death becomes truly reversible, if neurons that no longer function as a brain are restored to brain (not mere cellular) functionality, death by neurological criteria will no longer be a bona fide means of declaring a human being dead.

I’ll believe it when I see it.

Some might cheer because they don’t believe brain death is “dead,” and that such an outcome would mean no more organ procurement from such patients. 

Maybe not. Given the utilitarian flow of our culture, I think that if “brain dead” patients’ brains can be restored to a functioning state, it is more likely that the dead donor rule will be tossed to ensure access to good organs for more people. Note: Wesley J. Smith, J.D., is a special consultant to the Center for Bioethics and Culture and a bioethics attorney who blogs at Human Exeptionalism.