A human patient has been put under “suspended animation” for the first time ever. This means that the future of emergency room surgery could be changed forever.
The idea of “suspended animation” is that a person in critical condition, such as a victim of a stab or gunshot wound, can effectively have their bodily functions “paused” while doctors repair their injuries.
“We are suspending life, but we don’t like to call it suspended animation because it sounds like science fiction,” Dr. Samuel Tisherman told New Scientist. “We’re trying to buy ourselves more time to save lives.”
The trials are being conducted at the University of Maryland Medical Center on patients who arrive with acute trauma. The non-sci-fi name for the suspended animation technique is EPR: emergency preservation and resuscitation.
The EPR technique works like this: the patient’s blood is replaced with ice-cold saline. This rapidly cools the patient’s body down so much that the heart stops beating and brain activity ceases.
While that may sound scary–perhaps even fatal–it’s actually nothing to fear. When the body is at a normal temperature, cells need constant oxygen to stay alive. But the ice-cold saline slows the chemical reactions in cells so much that they don’t need as much oxygen.
The person doesn’t die, but their life functions are briefly pot on hold so that they don’t bleed out before the doctors can help them. Acute trauma patients would typically have less than a 5% chance of surviving. The technique hopes to lift that percentage much, much higher.
The human brain can only survive around five minutes without oxygen. But with EPR, doctors and surgeons have two hours to repair the patients’ wounds before their body is warmed and their heart restarted.
Thorough results of the EPR trials should be announced by the end 2020. In the meantime, there are still questions that need answers:
While the truth about EPR might be stranger than fiction, it’s going to help doctors save many more lives.