Suspended Animation Used for Surgery for First Time Ever

Suspended animation is a classic sci-fi trope that’s been used to explain everything from how people would be able to explore space, á la 2001: A Space Odyssey, to how criminals and cops could be frozen for years until they’re ready to battle it out once again—yes, that’s a Demolition Man reference. But now, for the first time ever, suspended animation has been deployed in real life, with the goal of helping doctors perform surgery on traumatically injured patient. And while that’s not as thrilling as what we’ve come to expect from fictional stories utilizing the concept, it’s still a seemingly important milestone for the evolution of medicine.

In an exclusive New Scientist report, which comes via Futurism, a team of doctors from the University of Maryland School of Medicine say that they have placed “at least one patient” in suspended animation, setting a new boundary on what’s possible in terms of temporarily halting a human’s normal bodily functions for a relatively extended period of time. The team’s lead, Samuel Tisherman, at the University of Maryland School of Medicine, told New Scientist that the first human trial of suspended animation felt “a little surreal,” although he does want to make clear that he and his team are “not trying to send people off to Saturn.”

A 2014 CNN video in which Dr. Tisherman describes EPR. 

The suspended animation procedure, officially referred to as “emergency preservation and resuscitation,” or EPR, was actually pioneered by Tisherman, along with the late Peter Safar, who is commonly referred to as “the father of CPR.” The procedure works by utilizing an ice-cold saline solution that replaces all of a patient’s blood until their body is cooled down to a temperature of between 10 to 15 degrees Celsius (or 50 to 59 degrees Fahrenheit). This significant cooling of the patient’s body stymies its cells’ need for oxygen, which keeps them alive for some period of time without proper blood flow. At normal body temperatures, human cells can live on for roughly two minutes without oxygen before dying; at the lowered temperature range induced by EPR, the cells can last for hours.

This mitigation of the amount of oxygen a patient’s cells require affords doctors far more time to diagnose and treat whatever may be wrong with the patient, which is critical for saving their life. EPR is specifically being used on patients who are rushed to the ER with traumatic, life-threatening injuries, such as gunshot or stab wounds, because those types of injuries result in major blood loss, which rapidly deprives cells of their needed oxygen. EPR is also being deployed on these types of patients, at least initially, because there’s simply no other option for saving them from death. Meaning EPR is only used as a last resort when no other procedure will work. (This is the reason the Food and Drug administration allowed the human trials to take place without the need of patient consent.)

A 2018 TED talk in which Dr. Tisherman goes into more depth regarding how EPR works. 

Once doctors have performed whatever procedures necessary to stabilize a patient, the patient is brought out of the cold-temperature-induced suspended animation and warmed back up to 34 degrees Celsius (about 93 degrees Fahrenheit) over the course of 12 hours. This warming up of the patient can still result in reperfusion injuries, however, which are damages that occur when blood flow returns to previously deprived cells. These types of injuries may be minimized by various drugs, however, which Tisherman is also apparently working on.

In regards to the extent EPR will be used in the future, on a much larger scale (perhaps most importantly on the battle field), that, of course, will come down to how effective it is during its trial period. To that end, despite the announcement of the first human trial(s), it currently unknown whether or not the patient(s) who received the treatment survived.

Dr. Tisherman says, however, that he’d ideally like to show the world the full results of the trial by the end of 2020. “Now we are [performing EPR on patients] and we are learning a lot as we move forward with the trial,” Tisherman told New Scientist, adding that “Once we can prove it works here, we can expand the utility of this technique to help patients survive that otherwise would not.”

What do you think of this first human trial of suspended animation? Do you think it will prove to be an effective way to buy time for surgeons who are attempting to save critically wounded patients, or do you think this method will remain relegated to the world of science fiction for the foreseeable future? Thaw out your opinions in the comments section!

Feature image: Docteur Spitalier Philippe