After years of sci-fi-inspired fantasies about the technique, a team of doctors in Pittsburgh are finally ready to start testing out a procedure that involves putting patients in a state of “suspended animation” while they repair their injuries. Put bluntly, they’re going to kill people and bring them back to life.
If you haven’t heard of this method before, prepare to have your mind blown. Often patients with massive trauma like a gunshot or stab wound bleed to death before doctors have the chance to fix the structural injuries. However, this so-called “emergency preservation” technique buys them extra time, because it quickly cools the body down to temperatures as low as 50-degrees Fahrenheit, stopping almost all cellular activity. “We are suspending life, but we don’t like to call it suspended animation because it sounds like science fiction,” says Samuel Tisherman who’s leading the study in Pittsburgh.
To do so, doctors replace all of the patients’ blood with a cold saline solution. In this state, the patient has no signs of life—no pulse, no brain activity, nothing. He’s clinically dead, until the doctors resuscitate his by pumping blood back into his body and bringing the body temperature back up. The patient can remain in the state of suspended animation for hours and still be brought back to life. Doctors say there would be no damage to the brain.
Suspended animation has never been tested on humans. Dr. Hasam Alam, now at Harvard Medical School, first demonstrated the technique on pigs in 2002. By 2010, Alam said that he was ready to start human trials in Boston, and even though the FDA gave the go ahead a year later, that has yet to happen.
But just imagine how many lives this could save. Peter Rhee pioneered the technique at the University of Arizona in Tuscon and speaks about it in lofty terms. “After we did [the first] experiments, the definition of ‘dead’ changed,” Rhee told The New Scientist. “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.”
Soon, that solution could be coming to a hospital near you. The team at UPMC Presbyterian Hospital in Pittsburgh is now on call and waiting for their first candidate. They’ll perform the procedure ten times and compare the results to ten similar patients who were eligible but did not receive the treatment because the team wasn’t available. If all goes well, they’ll continue trials until they have enough data to analyze.
Pretty futuristic, right? It’s a little bit ironic that this ground-breaking new method for keeping patients alive is just a different iteration of one of the oldest preservation methods we know: pickling. “We’ve always assumed that you can’t bring back the dead,” says Rhee. “But it’s a matter of when you pickle the cells.” And now we’ve made the leap from sci-fi to horror. God bless progress.