Suspended animation induced in humans for the first time

Rapidly cooling patients could buy surgeons extra time to repair traumatic injuries.

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Surgeons in the operating room. Researchers at the University of Maryland believe rapidly cooling the body could put patients into a state of suspended animation.

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A team of surgeons at the University of Maryland School of Medicine have placed a human patient in "suspended animation" for the first time, according to a report by New Scientist on Wednesday. The procedure is intended to prolong the time surgeons have to fix traumatic injuries by deliberately lowering patients' body temperatures.

The Emergency Preservation and Resuscitation (EPR) for Cardiac Arrest From Trauma (EPR-CAT) trial has been in the works since 2010 and intends to rapidly cool the body of patients presenting with extreme trauma -- like a gunshot or knife wound. The prognosis for this type of trauma is grim: Due to rapid blood loss, these patients go into cardiac arrest. With the heart stopped, there's only minutes for surgeons to stem the bleeding and get the heart pumping again before damage occurs. The odds of survival are between 2 to 5%.

Even if patients survive, the lack of oxygen caused by the injuries can result in permanent damage to the brain.

Samuel Tisherman, who is overseeing the EPR-CAT trial, suspects that rapid cooling or "induced hypothermia" can buy trauma patients extra time.

The clinical trial aims to alter the body's temperature by about 27 degrees Celsius, dropping it below 10 degrees Celsius (50 degrees Fahrenheit) with an ice-cold saline solution. In computing parlance, the idea is that induced hypothermia puts the body into a sort of "standby" mode. Metabolic processes slow down, our cells don't need as much oxygen and so cell damage is prevented. When the wounds are repaired, the system can be rebooted -- hopefully with no long-lasting effects to the hardware.

There's sound scientific reason to believe rapid cooling can achieve such miraculous feats.

The New York Times reported a similar trial in dogs (with the somewhat alarming headline "Zombie Dogs") in December 2005, where canines ventured into the afterlife and back again. After having their blood drained and going into cardiac arrest, the dogs were pumped full of a cool saline solution. Clinically, doctors would say the dogs were dead, but after three hours, the saline solution was replaced with blood and the dogs were warmed. They survived. Importantly, they didn't seem to suffer from any severe neurological deficits.

A cohort of 20 patients will be enrolled in the study -- 10 will receive EPR, 10 will not. Trauma patients can not consent to taking part in the trial, but the US Food and Drug Administration approved the trial on the proviso there is no alternative treatment, while also consulting with members of the community and allowing anyone to opt out, should they choose.

No results have been released but Tisherman discussed the trial at a symposium at the New York Academy of Sciences on Monday, revealing his team had trialed the suspended animation technique in one patient. The expected completion date is December 2019, with full results expected by the end of 2020.

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Originally published 3:43 p.m PT