- The Washington Times - Thursday, June 23, 2016

A University of Washington microbiologist has completed a study that appears to show how some genes refuse to die even days after clinical death.

Scientist Peter Noble has discovered that a de facto Lazarus effect occurs within postmortem bodies. “Undead” genes linked with cancerous cells and embryonic development can activate days after death.

“It’s an experiment of curiosity to see what happens when you die,” Mr. Noble told Science magazine on Wednesday. “What’s jaw-dropping is that developmental genes are turned on after death.”

Mr. Noble and his team of researchers knew from a three-year-old study published in Forensic Science International that genes can remain active for hours after death. What is new with his current study, however, is that gene activity can spike up to four days later. 

The findings have not yet been peer-reviewed, but they have raised eyebrows within the field.

“This is a rare study,” molecular pharmacologist Ashim Malhotra of Pacific University, Hillsboro, in Oregon, told the magazine. “It is important to understand what happens to organs after a person dies, especially if we are going to transplant them.”

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The researcher said Mr. Noble’s work may help predict the quality of organ transplants in the future.

Mr. Noble’s study was completed by using deceased mice and zebrafish. Researchers excised and measured messenger RNA (mRNA) levels in the specimens’ tissue. The team found more than 1,000 active genes.

“Since our results show that the system has not reached equilibrium yet it would be interesting to address the following question: What would happen if we arrested the process of dying by providing nutrients and oxygen to tissues?” the study says. “It might be possible for cells to revert back to life or take some interesting path to differentiating into something new or lose differentiation altogether, such as in cancer.”

Mr. Noble’s work was funded in part with a grant from the National Cancer Institute and the Max Planck Society.

• Douglas Ernst can be reached at dernst@washingtontimes.com.

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