This month, the world’s first attempts at placing humans in suspended animation using a new technique will take place at the UPMC Presbyterian Hospital in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania — not for space travel, but to save lives.
The technique will initially be used on 10 patients whose wounds would otherwise be lethal in an attempt to buy the surgeons some time. It works, as suggested by science fiction, by cooling the body — but not by applying an external temperature change.
Related : Between life and death: Doctors try suspended animation on people
The doctors and surgeons in the hospital emphasise they are not referring to the treatment as ‘suspended animation’, as it draws connotations with something out of science fiction. They refer to the treatment rather as ‘emergency preservation and resuscitation’.
“If a patient comes to us two hours after dying you can’t bring them back to life. But if they’re dying and you suspend them, you have a chance to bring them back after their structural problems have been fixed,” said surgeon Peter Rhee at the University of Arizona in Tucson, who helped develop the technique.
The process of cooling the human body to prolong treatment of an injury has been known for years. At a human’s normal body temperature of 37C, cells need oxygen to pump the blood around the body and provide energy for cells.
When the temperature is brought to much lower levels, all chemical reactions slow down, giving surgeons in this case more time to operate on a patient.
The technique was first tested on pigs in 2000, when the saline solution reduced the animals’ body temperature to 10C. After treating the pigs’ injuries, doctors replaced the solution with the pigs’ own blood.
“After we did those experiments, the definition of ‘dead’ changed,” said Rhee. “Every day at work I declare people dead. They have no signs of life, no heartbeat, no brain activity. I sign a piece of paper knowing in my heart that they are not actually dead. I could, right then and there, suspend them. But I have to put them in a body bag. It’s frustrating to know there’s a solution.”