A state of being stuck between life and death that can run for a long period of time is how some of us describe our jobs, but most of us would call it “suspended animation.” A crucial part of most sci-fi space travel story plots, we may be moving a little closer to finally seeing suspended animation in real life.
Doctors at the UPMC Presbyterian Hospital in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, are looking for ten victims of severe trauma and blood loss, such as gunshot or knife wounds, that they hope to save using a new suspended animation procedure they call “emergency preservation and resuscitation.”
The procedure starts with rapidly flushing the patients blood out and replacing it with a cold saline solution to drop the body temperature to 10 degrees Celsius, stopping almost all metabolic reactions. This technique is much faster than the ice packs used in heart and brain surgery. In this cold state, the heart and brain are stopped and the person is essentially dead. Fortunately, cold cells can survive without oxygen. The doctors will have up to two hours to repair the injuries. Once they’re finished, the saline is flushed and replaced by blood. If the patient’s heart does not start normally, resuscitation will be used.
This suspended animation technique was successfully tested on pigs in 2002 by Hasan Alam at the University of Michigan Hospital in Ann Arbor. After receiving an induced trauma, the pigs were cooled, operated on and brought back, usually without artificial resuscitation and showing no loss of physical or cognitive function.
A few hours of suspended animation won’t get you far into space, but it’s a start. Samuel Tisherman, the surgeon heading the trial, put it this way:
We're trying to save lives, not pack people off to Mars. Can we go longer than a few hours with no blood flow? I don't know. Maybe years from now someone will have figured out how to do it, but it will certainly take time.
Meanwhile, bears watch us and shake their heads.