The practice of “Experimental Decedent Model” donations is increasing



Every funeral director has had that call from a non-profit life donation organization that the recently deceased Mr. Doe will be unable for removal for 24 hours or so while his organs are harvested.  Funeral directors are also keenly aware of of those families or individuals who have been in to the funeral home prior to death in order to make sure that all processes and procedures are completed so that upon death the decedent can be a “full-body” donation to a medical school or accredited facility.


Funeral directors are well-versed in how to handle the above situations and know that, in most cases, some type of memorialization of the decedent can be accomplished even with those wishes of the decedent.


Just last week, however, I read this article from the MIT Technology Review entitled “Donated bodies are powering gene-edited organ research”.  Now, I served on the Board of Regents for the University of Minnesota for six years and am well aware of the research being done in the medical field to advance medical science and eventual results for patients.


The MIT article, however, explained that there is a growing movement for the “hospitalized brain-dead”.  While these individuals have always been important for organ donation, they are increasingly being needed for research in the biotech world.


For instance, recently “the University of Pennsylvania connected a pig liver to a brain-dead person in an experiment that lasted for three days.  The point was to determine whether the organ—which was mounted inside a special pumping device—could still do its job of cleaning up toxins from the body, and possibly lead to a new approach for helping patients with acute liver failure.”


The article also continues with this information, “Using entire bodies in this way—as an experimental “decedent model”—remains highly unusual. But there’s been an upsurge in requests for bodies as more companies start testing animal-to-human organ transplants using tissues from specially gene-edited pigs”.


According to Richard Hasz, CEO of the non-profit Gift of Life Donor Program, he says it was in 2021 when donation organizations starting hearing from surgeons that they needed “brain-dead” people because of the upswing of gene-editing and the doctors wanting to try gene-edited pig organs in humans.


Tom Anderson
Funeral Director Daily

Funeral Director Daily take:  With the strides being made in Biotechnology and health care I think it is safe to say that funeral directors can look for “Experimental Decedent Model” body donations to be increasing in the decade to come. And, we will have to learn to deal with these “deaths” where family members are grieving the loss and wanting to make arrangements, but the deceased’s remains may not be available at the funeral home until 3 to 7 days later.


It won’t happen often at each individual funeral home, but it will happen.  When it happens we just have to be honest with the family on the known aspects and not promise more than we can deliver in terms of timing of services, etc.


Related —  MIT produces a list of the Ten Top Breakthrough technologies of the past year and for 2023 their #6 breakthrough is “Organs on Demand”.  Personally, I found that really interesting as during my time at the University of Minnesota I got to know a heart surgeon who was on the forefront of that technology. He was working with pigs’ hearts and splicing human genes on to them while a pig’s heart was in utero. . .then when that pig was born it had characteristics of the human heart where the genes’ came from.


His goal was to be able to produce a system where a human could have a “spare heart” in case he suffered heart disease.  He was certain the technology would get there, but during our discussions we talked about ethics, where are these “spare” parts housed, etc.  In my opinion, it is the “tip of the iceberg” on what the combination of medicine and technology will be able to accomplish moving forward.


Related — Like me, until I served on the University of Minnesota board, most people have no idea how much research is done at our nation’s colleges and universities.  During my time at Minnesota we were always teetering right on the cusp of $1 billion in research grants annually and as you can see from this article, which includes great graphics, the U of Minnesota received $1.13 billion in research grants in 2023 — which gave us a ranking of #12 nationally.


Almost half of that money came from grants from the federally funded National Science Foundation and the National Institute of Health.  Another $158.6 million came from “other” Federal sources so approximately $678 million of the $1.13 billion, or 60% came from your tax dollars.  That funding is something most of us don’t even think about when we think of our government’s expenditures. . . . and that is only the amount spent at one university.


However, many of us are alive today, or have a better standard of living because of it. I was still serving on the board during the pandemic and it was this knowledge that led me to believe that America would certainly be the first country to come up with a vaccination, and in record time.  Much like the moon mission in the 1960’s or the pandemic vaccine in 2020, America just needs to get a focus to accomplish great things.  The building blocks to do so are there.


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