Human Post-Mortem Tissue Conatus

Why do certain cells seek survival as the body dies? What guides this process?

Investigators from the Indiana Center for Regenerative Medicine and Engineering at Indiana University School of Medicine are exploring what happens to cells in the onset of human death and why certain tissues seek survival, even as the body dies. Faculty from the IU College of Arts + Sciences, with expertise in philosophy and bioethics, are collaborating with ICRME investigators, to study the biophysical, ethical and philosophical questions that will direct their efforts in discovery.

Regenerative medicine, a promising new field of medicine that explores reprogramming or regenerating human cells and tissues, is a fitting approach to pursue post-mortem tissue conatus research–or research after human death. Combined with tissue engineering research, investigators are exploring how to improve or restore damaged tissues and other parts of the body, and their capacity to survive after death. 

In 2021, the ICRME received a 3-year grant from the John Templeton Foundation on the topic of human post-mortem tissue conatus. Led by Chandan K. Sen, PhD, director of the Indiana Center for Regenerative Medicine and Engineering, research findings could help inform future biomedical research that recognizes death as a biological variable as well as a pathway to future clinical care that supports enhanced tissue survival, that may have implications for transplant recipients, forensic science and other clinical areas.

Events Update 

The Indiana Center for Regenerative Medicine and Engineering recently hosted an event near Washington, D.C., to share its progress in post-mortem conatus life research, which included top subject matter experts in the field and representatives from the National Institutes of Health (NIH). The event was held on Nov. 18.

The ICRME will host a future event in Indianapolis, Ind., in 2023. 

Date and venue TBA.

“Every living thing has an innate desire to perpetuate life. Once the organism dies, do component cells fight for survival independent of the organism? We want to determine if so, which components, why, and how?”
Chandan Sen
Chandan K. Sen, PhD
Director, Indiana Center for Regenerative Medicine and Engineering 
Associate Vice President of Military & Applied Research, Indiana University

Exploring cellular and tissue death after human death at IU

For centuries, scientists, psychologists, philosophers, and ethicists alike have been fascinated by the concept of life after death and sought to better understand what happens to human tissues, composed of an ever-changing flux of trillions of cells, after human death. Today, a new generation of thought leaders remain captivated and want to better understand the biological metamorphosis and are asking whether certain cells live on after human death.

Study of cell death in cancer has helped inform investigators about how cells proliferate and die as well as how they can be disguised to prevent further disease, and they continue to offer more clues to the nature of cells.

In recent years, the study, “Tracing the dynamics of gene transcripts after organismal death,” published in Open Biology in 2017, investigators found unique dynamics of specific genes which were upregulated and only shut off nearly 96 hours after death in zebra fish and mice. They surmised through “natural selection and self-organizing processes,” they underwent a “thermodynamically-driven process of spontaneous disintegration through complex pathways,” which consisted of an increase of specific gene transcripts and putative feedback loops.

In 2021, investigators from the University of Illinois Chicago (UIC) found gene expression in fresh brain tissue to increase after death in inflammatory cells called glial cells. Results of their study were published in Scientific Reports and showed these “zombie genes” grew arm-like appendages for several hours after clinical death and would clean up after neurological events such as stroke or oxygen deprivation.

Scientists now know which cells and genes remain stable, which disintegrate, and which proliferate. Yet, there remains unanswered questions. Is there an intrinsic urge for survival at the human body level or at the individual cellular level? Is there life after the heart and brain stop? The Indiana Center for Regenerative Medicine and Engineering at Indiana University seeks answers.