Doctors in a hospital in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania are now permitted to place critically injured patients in a state of suspended animation, leading to questions about how far this procedure might be taken in the future.
According to Sebastian Anthony of ExtremeTech.com, the procedure involves replacing a person’s blood with a cold saline solution, effectively stopping almost all cellular activity in the body.
“At this point, the patient is clinically dead — but if the doctors can fix the injury within a few hours, they can be returned to life from suspended animation by replacing the saline with blood,” Anthony writes. “Or at least, that’s the theory.”
Scientists have been working with the technique since 2002 when researchers at the University of Michigan Hospital successfully brought a pig back to life after it suffered a massive hemorrhage similar to a gunshot wound. Despite being dead for several hours, the animal returned to life with no physical or cognitive impairments.
Now referred to as “emergency preservation and resuscitation”, doctors at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center’s Presbyterian Hospital will test the technique on human trauma patients. Testing will be done on 10 trauma patients whose outcome will be compared to 10 patients who did not receive the treatment.
“Samuel Tisherman, the surgeon who is leading the trial, told New Scientist that they’ll then refine their technique and try it out on 10 more patients — at which point, there should be enough data to work out whether suspended animation is worth rolling out to other hospitals,” Anthony reports.
For now, the process is only being used for cardiac arrests following traumatic injuries, but in the future Tisherman says he’d like to use it for other conditions as well.
“The other big question, of course, is whether this technique can be used to suspend animation for more than just a couple of hours. If I have my blood replaced with saline, and then use cryonics to cool my body down yet further, could I be ‘dead’ for a few months or weeks or years before being warmed up again?” Anthony asks.
This might make it possible for several “sci-fi” scenarios to become reality, such as people allowing themselves to be put into suspended animation until a cure can be found for whatever ended their life.
It’s one thing to resort to extraordinary means to help someone whose life can be saved due to the need for a few more hours of treatment, but to deliberately suspend a human being between life and death for an extended period of time raises a plethora of ethical issues that will have to be dealt with in the future.
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