Trials test suspended animation in humans for the first time.

The idea of temporarily preserving oneself on ice is mind-boggling. What would it be like? How long could it be sustained? Is suspended animation the key to deep space travel? Thanks to a team from the University of Maryland’s school of medicine, humanity is getting a lot closer to answering those questions.

For the first time ever, the team is testing out the extreme life-saving measure on human subjects. The trial has already seen one patient put into suspended animation and plans to continue researching the topic in the coming days. The team hopes that the technique will give doctors a chance at saving the lives of acutely ill patients that might not survive otherwise.

Drastic Measures

During cases of severe trauma, a person can lose blood so quickly that their heart stops beating. Unfortunately, this type of failure makes CPR a losing battle. As such, surgeons are left with only one option: rerouting blood flow to the heart and brain via intensive, high-risk surgeries. Even then, only patients who arrive at the hospital in record time have a shot at survival.

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Maryland professor Samuel Tisherman says, “You’ve got someone who’s got an injury, it’s fixable, but you’ve not got time to fix it.”

The team hopes that its suspended animation technique will buy time for physicians while also preserving brain function in the patient. To avoid sci-fi comparisons, the team is calling the process “emergency preservation and resuscitation” (EPR). It works by rapidly cooling down the body to just 50-59 degrees Fahrenheit. That’s about forty degrees colder than its normal state of 98 degrees.

Tisherman says, “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.”

Being so cold tells the body to slow down so that only the most essential functions are occurring. Therefore, less oxygen is necessary for the brain and heart—which gives surgeons time to intervene. Instead of having a few minutes to perform a life-saving procedure, they could have a few hours.

The patient is eventually placed on a cardiopulmonary bypass machine and rewarmed to normal temperatures.

Controversial Study

Tisherman and his team received FDA approval for the procedure since it proved to be successful in non-human trials. However, it will only be used (at least for now) in patients that would not otherwise survive. This means that consent isn’t necessary before the procedure begins. It’s noteworthy that people in the area where the study is taking place can opt-out in advance should they prefer.

The trial will test EPR with 10 patients. A further 10 patients, who arrive at the hospital when Tisherman and his team aren’t there, will be used as a control group.

While the life-saving potential of EPR is high, it isn’t without risks. The process can cause widespread cellular damage when blood flow restarts. It isn’t clear why this happens. Nonetheless, for patients undergoing the procedure, the risk is far better than certain death.

As the study begins taking place, Tisherman has hope that it will yield positive results. He says, “We certainly hope that this kind of approach, basically just trying to stop the clock, buy time, maybe with hypothermia, maybe with drugs… will allow us to save the trauma patients that are currently dying in front of us. Hopefully in the future we’re going to have patients survive that otherwise would not.”

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