Death is more like the slow shutdown of a computer instead of the quick switching off a light bulb, researchers say in a new study that suggests certain genes in the body remain alive even after someone is declared clinically dead.
Researchers from the University of Washington demonstrated this through mice and zebrafish and found that hundreds of gene expressions with different functions stayed awake for up to two days after the animals were dead.
Surprisingly enough, the cancer gene increased after death, researcher Peter Noble of the University of Washington said.
He says this could have huge implications for organ transplants.
“Within an hour of the person being dead, cancer gene transcripts are increasing significantly up to 24 hours. So what this means is that people who get liver transplants have a higher cancer risk,” Noble said.
He explained when you take an organ from a person who has been dead, cancer genes have been turned on and could be transplanted into a new patient.
“What can happen is that patient then can get cancer,” Noble said.
That is why he says time is crucial for organ transplants because you don’t want to give the gene a chance to increase dramatically, which in turn creates a higher risk of cancer.
Noble and lead researcher Alex Pozhitkov started their research because they were curious to know what happens to people when they die.
So they took a sample of roughly 40 dead mice and zebrafish and looked at the activity of their genes throughout a 96-hour time frame. Specifically, they measured messenger RNA, which genes use to communicate with cells.
“Gene expression decreases for 99 per cent of the samples. But for one per cent, they increased, which is the most bizarre thing. Why would genes increase when you die? It’s the most bizarre thing that we’ve ever found,” Noble said.
The activated genes are associated with fetal development, stress, inflammation, immunity and cancer, Noble said, who suggests our cells are trying to repair themselves even after death.
He believes this phenomenon occurs in all animals, including humans.