Surgeons are pioneering a method of inducing extreme hypothermia in trauma patients so that their bodies shut down entirely during major surgery. Their thoughts being that this approach will give doctors more time to perform operations. Advocates also hope it will help reduce the damage done to the brain and other organs while the patient's heart is not beating. The need for anaesthetic and life support equipment is also reduced.
Researchers are set to begin the first human trials of the technique, which involves replacing a patient's blood with a cold solution to rapidly chill body temperatures. The cold treatment is being developed at Harvard Medical School and the Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston. A patient's body will be cooled to as low as 50 degrees Fahrenheit, whereas humans usually die if the core body temperature drops below 72.
Dr Hasan Alam, the surgeon who is leading the research at Massachusetts General Hospital, said that often emergency patients suffering from gunshot wounds, stabbings and car accidents are on the brink of death anyway so by cooling their bodies so extensively it can protect their brain and organs from damage. Dr Alam said trials of the technique in animals had shown it to be hugely successful.
Using the technique on human patients for the first time will involve connecting a pump to the major blood vessels around the heart and removing the warm blood in the body and replacing it with cold saline solution. This allows them to cool the body by around two degrees per minute, rapidly causing the body's tissues to shut down.
At normal body temperatures, brain death typically occurs in four or five minutes, as cells start to produce toxins that ultimately kill them. By cooling the body so much, the cells are essentially put into a state of suspended animation that prevents this from happening.