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June 11th, 2010
03:21 PM ET

Suspended animation as emergency medicine?

By Caleb Hellerman
CNN Medical Senior Producer

A scientist known for so-called suspended animation research has a new paper hinting at a way to improve the survival odds of trauma victims and people undergoing major, risky surgery.

Biologist Mark Roth and two colleagues tested the ability of two types of organisms – garden worms and yeast – to survive extreme cold. After 24 hours at temperatures just above freezing, 99 percent of both the worms and the yeast were dead.

The researchers then repeated the experiment, after first “suspending” each organism with a drug – nitrogen – that drains oxygen from cells. This time, when temperatures were returned to normal and the nitric oxide was removed, most of the creatures came back to life, as if nothing had happened.

The paper is published in a journal called “Molecular Biology of the Cell.”

A company co-founded by Roth, who is based at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center in Seattle, is working to develop a similar drug, hydrogen sulfide, into a therapy that would extend the window of survival for people suffering massive blood loss, stroke or cardiac arrest. The new paper suggests a potential link between this work and the expanding use of therapeutic hypothermia, in which doctors carefully cool patients to about 10 degrees below normal body temperature, a process that’s been shown to improve survival after cardiac arrest.

Deeper cooling – to around 60 degrees Fahrenheit – is reserved for risky heart or brain surgeries, where blood flow needs to be temporarily stopped. It’s considered a last resort, because extreme low temperatures carry a high risk of brain damage, heart arrhythmias and other problems.  Outside the hospital, the lowest body temperature a person is known to have survived is 56 degrees.

Roth says a “suspended animation” drug might some day allow a way to get the full benefit from hypothermia, without dangerous side effects. “You can vastly increase survival limits of animals in the cold, if you put them in suspended animation, if you reduce oxygen consumption,” he says.

After seeing the same dramatic effect in very different creatures – “[Genetically], worms and yeast are about as far away from each other as they are from humans”– Roth hopes it turns out that the survival mechanism is something basic to all living cells, even ours. “Obviously we don’t know if this would ever work in humans. But we hope it will.”

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soundoff (15 Responses)
  1. upwinger

    Fascinating article! I now feel even more confident that cryonics will work and that I made the right decision arranging for a cryonic suspension in the event of my death.

    June 11, 2010 at 23:42 | Report abuse | Reply
  2. Tomicus

    God Bless Mark Roth.

    June 12, 2010 at 01:41 | Report abuse | Reply
  3. blackstarzero

    I've been reading about suspended animation especially hydrogen sulfide for the last 5-10 years in Scientific American and other science magazines and they've made a lot of progress I just hope that they can make it work.

    June 12, 2010 at 06:11 | Report abuse | Reply
  4. tricia

    As a med student I had the privilege to observe deep hypothermia used to allow neurosurgeons to resect a giant cerebral aneurysm. The young woman who presented with excruciating headaches (but, amazingly, had not had a bleeed) survived completely intact...anoither 'miracle" of modern medical technology.

    June 12, 2010 at 11:04 | Report abuse | Reply
  5. Ro

    It is an interesting article. However, I will not say this is relevant to humans. There is such huge differences between garden worm/yeast and humans. When putting people in suspended animation, what people don't realize there are we are such complex organisms. For example, if we enter this state of suspended animation with cold temperatures, our blood would expand and form ice lattices. Thus the blood vessels would be ruptured. So this research has a long way to go before it can be said it is relevant to people.

    June 13, 2010 at 01:36 | Report abuse | Reply
  6. Jason

    Ro – if you read the article carefully, you will see that their experiments always kept the temperature above freezing. Whether or not an organism has a sophisticated circulatory system, freezing will cause its cells to burst, which is obviously fatal. Some things can survive sub-0C temperatures by using a form of natural antifreeze, but that's not what this research was about. I read it as a proof-of-concept that shows that there is no fundamental reason that it can't work in humans.

    June 13, 2010 at 14:36 | Report abuse | Reply
  7. Joe

    I read an article months ago about this same procedure being done successfully on mice

    June 13, 2010 at 16:16 | Report abuse | Reply
  8. David

    upwinger? in the event of your death??? good luck with the whole soul thing. I'm not sure they figured out how to freeeeeze that. Newb. Go to school.

    June 13, 2010 at 16:43 | Report abuse | Reply
    • Lee

      Who cares about the soul? We don't even know that it exists, and it most likely does not. I'd take the chance for living. Quit worrying about the "after" life, and worry about this one.

      July 29, 2010 at 08:15 | Report abuse |
  9. David

    by the way... read dr. gupta's book. lowering the body temperature during resuscitation and recovery improves outcomes greatly. it's not his research, but he points out a few papers that are important. ive worked in er medicine and induced hypothermia DOES improve outcomes.

    June 13, 2010 at 16:47 | Report abuse | Reply
  10. fank

    Could test this on animals, to see if there's some chance it would work in humans later.

    June 13, 2010 at 18:00 | Report abuse | Reply
  11. uselogic80

    I'm going to start keeping the air conditioner down a few degrees... just in case 🙂

    June 13, 2010 at 18:52 | Report abuse | Reply
  12. John

    "...and the expanding use of therapeutic hypothermia, in which doctors carefully cool patients to about 10 degrees below normal body temperature..."

    Um, excuse me? "DOCTORS" carefully cool patients? As an ICU nurse, have to say, doctors don't do JACK. *WE* the NURSES carefully cool patients very carefully to 6-8 degrees below normal body temperature. Time to start giving credit where credit is due.

    June 14, 2010 at 00:09 | Report abuse | Reply
  13. Leo

    My first thought, on reading this, was to imagine Dr. Leonard "Bones" McCoy activating a stasis field over a patient on a biobed. Maybe I've been watching too much Star Trek lately.

    June 14, 2010 at 09:39 | Report abuse | Reply
  14. Smith in Oregon

    Medical doctors working for the CIA induced coma's in medical experimental volunteers for months at a time in their attempts to push a person into quicker healing and an erasal of their main memorys. Undoubtedly experiments similar to those described in this article of suspended animation have been tried on US prisoners under the guise of medical experimentation.

    June 15, 2010 at 02:15 | Report abuse | Reply

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Get a behind-the-scenes look at the latest stories from CNN Chief Medical Correspondent, Dr. Sanjay Gupta, Senior Medical Correspondent Elizabeth Cohen and the CNN Medical Unit producers. They'll share news and views on health and medical trends - info that will help you take better care of yourself and the people you love.