Exploring Science & Big Questions

3d rendering of human cells in a blue background

Through science and the Big Questions

What happens to cells in the onset of human death? And why do certain tissues seek survival, even as the body dies? 

Our research aims to answer these questions and address one of the John Templeton Foundation’s strategic priorities: Science & the Big Questions.


The goal of human post-mortem tissue conatus research

Investigators want to better understand how the body prepares to die and the molecular mechanisms associated with the onset of death. Their discoveries may bring new reasoning about life and death from a scientific and philosophical perspective, and herald possibilities for future medical treatment. We hypothesize withdrawal of central survival signals in clinical death induces a return to fetal development in select cellular populations that strive purposefully to survive. 

Scientists have continued to question, challenge, and redefine death—foremost clinical death—because of technological advances, including transplantation and other life-sustaining treatments. 

For example, in the 2018 journal article, “Circulatory Arrest, Brain Arrest and Death Determination,” published in Frontiers in Cardiovascular Medicine, co-authors stated death occurs by one of three physiological mechanisms, a primary or secondary brain event; a primary or secondary respiratory event; or a primary or secondary circulatory event. These events could range from the cessation of blood flow which leads to apnea, hypoxemia, cardiac arrest and circulatory arrest to all organs, including the brain. 

There is also a legal determination of death in the United States, thanks to the Uniform Determination of Death Act (UDDA), which was developed in 1981, and is now in the process of being revised on behalf of the Uniform Law Commission, as more clinical questions and terminology are addressed.

As cells seek survival after clinical death, we are exploring the extent of their activities, which may further define how we can purposefully extend life in a clinical setting.

Core questions of Templeton Grant Research on Human Fetal Development Genes

  • What does it mean to be alive?
  • What is the nature of death?
  • Where is there unity of organisms in living and dying?

Our quest for answers continues…

Conatus (Latin: to endeavor”) represents an innate ‘will to live’ of a thing, a striving to continue to exist and enhance itself. In modern-day biology, conatus describes autopoiesis – an inherent ability to self-regenerate. conatus by using advanced scientific technologies to study human cells while integrating philosophical discussions into our queries:

  • What is organic unity and is there a form of life after organic death? 
  • Can genetic changes at the cellular level respond to the type of death experienced? 
  • How does this affect current procedures such as organ transplants received post-mortem?

Human death is categorized by a 4-point Hardy scale as follows:

Ventilator Case – All cases on a ventilator immediately before death.

  1. Violent and fast death – terminal phase within 10 minutes (due to accident, blunt force trauma or suicide)
  2. Fast death of natural causes – terminal phase at < 1h (sudden unexpected deaths of people who had been reasonably healthy (e.g., myocardial infarction)
  3. Intermediate death– after a terminal phase of 1 to 24 hours (patients who were ill, but death was unexpected)
  4. Slow death– after a long illness, with a terminal phase longer than 1 day (e.g., cancer or chronic pulmonary disease; deaths that are not unexpected)

In human death, do organs and tissues mount a survival or regenerative response, despite a disconnection from the fate of the organism as a whole? If so, why?

This line of thinking emphasizes the following issues of broad significance:

  1. Brings to light the significance of death as a biological variable (DABV) 1 in experimental sciences
  2. Uncovers novel survival and regenerative pathways responsible for cell autopoiesis after human death
  3. Sheds light on life as a purpose-driven process, where the purpose is not just the life of the organism, but processes beyond.