The concept sounds like it was ripped directly from a Hollywood movie script.

Doctors at the UPMC Presbyterian Hospital in Pittsburgh will test out an innovative emergency technique, one which will call for knife-wound or gunshot victims with life-or-death injuries to be cooled down and… get this… placed in suspended animation to aid treatment efforts.

The intriguing technique calls for doctors to replace all of a dying patient’s blood with a cold saline solution, which is designed to quickly cool the body and halt just about all cellular activity. Called “emergency preservation and resuscitation” by UPMC Presbyterian Hospital surgeon Samuel Tisherman in an interview with New Scientist, it has the potential to allow for doctors to prevent patients from dying by suspending their lives until critical structural issues are addressed. The patients aren’t exactly dead, but they don’t exhibit any signs of life, either. 

The technique showed significant promise when it was used on pigs more than a decade ago. Doctors at the University of Michigan Hospital in Ann Arbor sedated the animals and simulated the effects of several gunshot wounds by inducing a hemorrhage. Then Dr. Hasan Alam and his fellow colleagues removed the blood from the bodies of the pigs and replaced it with either cold potassium or saline solution. After doctors attended to the pigs’ injuries, they warmed up the animals and swapped out the solution for blood. The efforts of Dr. Alam and others found that the hearts of many of the pigs tested starting beating again on their own, though others did have to be jump-started. More importantly, however, was the fact that the emergency preservation and resuscitation had no effect on the pigs’ physical or cognitive function.

Moving forward, the plan is for the technique to be tested on 10 people. Then the outcomes of those trials will be compared with another 10 patients who met the criteria but were not treated with the technique. Human testing has yet to commence.

While the promise of suspended animation as a means to enhance and improve medical outcomes is both interesting and exciting, just how realistic is it? It’s not difficult to imagine or acknowledge the potential benefits. But it’s less than easy to recognize suspended animation as a viable technique for doctors to employ in emergency settings. To do so requires both a leap of faith and a wealth of data from several successful trials.

The New Scientist article discusses induced hypothermia at great length. It also mentions how, just prior heart and brain surgery, doctors sometimes lower body temperature using ice packs and by circulating the blood through an external cooling system. This serves as a way to provide surgeons with much-needed time (even as much as 45 minutes) to halt blood flow and commence with the procedure. Unfortunately, the cooling process takes considerable time and is only useful when done with thorough planning and preparation. Doctors addressing life-or-death injuries often have little or no time to prepare for what actions they have to take. So it remains to be seen if suspended animation will really and truly work in emergency situations. 

Nevertheless, I am excited to see healthcare professionals put forth the requisite effort to determine whether suspended animation can play a role in emergency settings. The quest to improve treatments and surgical techniques sometimes requires a dash of creativity and innovation. Placing patients who are near death in a state of suspended animation to facilitate more time to treat their injuries stretches the boundaries of my imagination, but I hope time and testing validates the potential of what can only be described as a truly remarkable technique.

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