A medical first as patients 'frozen in time' for surgery

Grant Boone
November 22, 2019

In the quest to fix life-threatening traumatic injuries, doctors at the University of Maryland School of Medicine are putting patients in suspended animation and operating on them. The idea that the functions of the human body can somehow be put on "pause" while life-saving medical procedures are performed (or a person is sent into space, a la Alien) has long seemed untenable - until now.

Doctors in the US say they have placed humans on the brink of death in a state of suspended animation for the first time.

The procedure is being used on people arriving at the University of Maryland Medical Center in Baltimore with an injury such as a gunshot or stab wound, who have had a cardiac arrest, and who have lost more than half their blood, leaving doctors just minutes to operate. The patients, who are often victims of stabbings or shootings, would normally have less than a 5% chance of survival.

By contrast, EPR rapidly drops the body's temperature far beyond that threshold, to 10 to 15 degrees Celsius, by replacing the blood with "ice-cold saline", according to New Scientist. At normal body temperatures, cells need a constant supply of oxygen to remain alive, but the cold temperature slows or stops the chemical reactions in cells, which need less oxygen as a result. The patient's brain activity nearly completely stops.

The team got permission by the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to carry out the trial even without the patient's consent, as there is no alternative treatment available. "We're trying to buy ourselves more time to save lives".

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In fact, the length of time that a person can be in suspended animation is not yet clear. Once the heart is no longer beating, blood stops transporting oxygen to cells, and without oxygen, the brain only has a few minutes before it becomes irreversibly damaged.

One complication of the procedure is that patients' cells can become damaged as they are warmed up after surgery. He wouldn't say how many people have been subject to the technique and the success rate.

"Once we can prove it works here, we can expand the utility of this technique to help patients survive that otherwise would not", Tisherman said.

"We have to see whether it works and then we can start to think about how and where we can use it", Lewis told New Scientist. The effort is part of a US trial that aims to reduce brain damage and death, which often results when injuries are so serious the heart stops circulating blood.

The team had discussions with the local community and placed adverts in newspapers describing the trial, pointing people to a website where they could opt out in advance.

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