Suspended animation has been a frequent occurrence in science fiction for generations. It has allowed many fictional characters to travel the universe for long stretches of time while remaining in a state of dormancy.
It’s helped explain many plot holes since it was first dreamt up, but now it’s playing a role in real life.
Real-world suspended animation is being tested as a possible way to save people who have experienced acute trauma. In some cases, a person who has suffered a significant injury might lose so much blood that their heart stops beating. In these cases, CPR becomes futile.
Sometimes, surgeons can open the person up and attempt to reroute blood to the brain and heart but this has to be done in a matter of minutes or else the patient will die.
Suspended animation is being considered as a possible way to save these patients.
The hoped-for result is saving people with fixable injuries. What researchers are hoping to do with suspended animation is give doctors more time to fix a person’s injury.
“You’ve got someone who’s got an injury, it’s fixable, but you’ve not got time to fix it,” Professor Samuel Tisherman, of the University of Maryland School of Medicine said.
Doctors call it “emergency preservation and resuscitation” (EPR) rather than suspended animation. The process involves cooling down the person’s body so that their brain’s temperature is between 10-15°C (50-59°F). Normally, the brain’s temperature is around 37°C (98°F).
To bring the body’s temperature down, researchers would pump the body full of cold saltwater.
“We came up with this idea that the fastest way we could cool the whole body, particularly the brain and the heart, was just to flush the body with cold fluid, and saline’s what we use,” Tisherman continued.
Being this cold slows everything in the body down considerably.
Our organs, including the brain, require much less oxygen in this state than they normally do. Using EPR for acute trauma victims increases the amount of time doctors have to reroute blood from just minutes to up to 2 hours.
“I want to make clear that we’re not trying to send people off to Saturn,” Tisherman would also say. “We’re trying to buy ourselves more time to save lives.”
By slowing down the body’s processes, doctors can greatly expand the window within which they have to work to save that person’s life. The results of this research could prevent an untold amount of preventable deaths.
Testing on animals showed that pigs could be placed in this state for 3 hours and resuscitated. The next step was to try it out on humans.
“We felt it was time to take it to our patients,” Tisherman continued. “Now we are doing it and we are learning a lot as we move forward with the trial. Once we can prove it works here, we can expand the utility of this technique to help patients survive that otherwise would not.”
Tisherman says his team has placed at least one person in suspended animation so far but did not reveal details regarding that case.
The US Food and Drug Administration has approved a trial that will involve 10 patients.
Due to the nature of the study, patient consent is not required as they would be in a near-fatal position at the time. The 10 patients where EPR is attempted will then be compared with 10 patients where EPR may have been a suitable treatment but was not used.
The comparison between the two groups will then help determine EPR’s effectiveness at saving lives.
Learn more about EPR and suspended animation in the video below!
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