Cryogenics and suspended animation. Once again the stuff of science fictions edges its way into science fact.
While not yet to the stages required for Futurama‘s Fry to sleep through thousands of years, or the crew of the Nostromo to sleep their way through space travel, the use of what is being called “emergency preservation and resuscitation” (EPR) could give doctors just enough time to bring patients back from the brink of death, which is still rather incredible.
“We are suspending life, but we don’t like to call it suspended animation because it sounds like science fiction,” Samuel Tisherman, a surgeon leading the upcoming trial, told NewScientist.”So we call it emergency preservation and resuscitation.”
While the technique, with its new clinical title, has yet to be used on humans, the basic concept is to take those very near death, gun shot or stabbing victims for example, who have lost considerable blood and whose body is beginning to shut down, in fact those whose hearts have stopped beating, and try to slow the decay process by cooling the body just long enough to be able to bring them back from the dead.
Instead of declaring these individuals dead, doctors would drain the remaining blood, replacing it with a cold saline solution through the heart and brain, bringing down the body temperature to a chilly 50 degrees Fahrenheit (10 Celsius). The patient would be clinically dead, however the cooling of the body would slow the decay process, which begins within minutes of the heart stopping. Slowing down the cell decay for long enough to repair the physical damage causing the issue would then allow doctors to replace the saline with blood, bringing the body back to a healthy temperature. In some cases, doctors theorize, the heart will then begin to beat again on its own. For those whose hearts do not begin beating on their own, there is hope that successful resuscitation would be equally beneficial.
The technique was first used successfully in 2002 at the University of Michigan Hospital on a pig, who was given a hemorrhage to simulate a gun shot wound. When the pigs blood was replaced its heart started to beat again on its own, and it showed no ill cognitive or physical side effects. Other pigs in the trial did have to have their hearts restarted by doctors, but all seem to have made full recoveries.
The FDA (Food and Drug Administration) has recently given the go ahead to begin human trials. Doctors at UPMC Presbyterian Hospital in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania will test the technique on up to ten patients. The testing requires that those involved in the trial be patients whose hearts have already stopped due to massive blood loss and who have a less than 7% chance of survival. While there is little chance of seeing Nixon’s talking head in a jar, the technique could give those patients a 90% survival rate where they might have otherwise died.
Doctor Peter Rhee, a surgeon at the University of Arizona in Tucson who helped to develop the technique voiced his frustration with the current limitations of treatment options for his patients,
“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.”
With human trials starting soon, the hope is that at least ten trial patients with a potential 7% chance of survival will be brought back from the dead. Only time will tell if humans will be as lucky as the pigs have been and suffer no ill effects of the process, though one might argue that to have survived at all will be quite a feat.
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