Knife-wound or gunshot victims will be cooled down and placed in suspended animation later this month, as a groundbreaking emergency technique is tested out for the first time.
Surgeons are now on call at the UPMC Presbyterian Hospital in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, to perform the operation, which will buy doctors time to fix injuries that would otherwise be lethal.
“We are suspending life, but we don’t like to call it suspended animation because it sounds like science fiction,” says Samuel Tisherman, a surgeon at the hospital, who is leading the trial. “So we call it emergency preservation and resuscitation.”
The technique involves replacing all of a patient’s blood with a cold saline solution, which rapidly cools the body and stops almost all cellular activity. “If a patient comes to us two hours after dying you can’t bring them back to life. But if they’re dying and you suspend them, you have a chance to bring them back after their structural problems have been fixed,” says surgeon Peter Rhee at the University of Arizona in Tucson, who helped develop the technique.
Without oxygen the brain can only survive for about 5 minutes before the damage is irreversible.
However, at lower temperatures, cells need less oxygen because all chemical reactions slow down. This explains why people who fall into icy lakes can sometimes be revived more than half an hour after they have stopped breathing.
Just before heart and brain surgery, doctors sometimes lower body temperature using ice packs, and by circulating the blood through an external cooling system. This can give them up to 45 minutes in which to stop blood flow and perform surgery. However, the cooling process takes time and can only be done with careful planning and preparation.
When someone reaches an emergency department with a traumatic gunshot injury or stab wound, slow cooling isn’t an option. Often their heart has stopped beating due to extreme blood loss, giving doctors only minutes to stop the bleeding and restart the heart. Even if the bleeding can be stopped, it’s not like filling up an empty gas tank. Resuscitation exposes the body to a sudden onslaught of oxygen, which can cause tissues to release chemicals that damage cells and cause fatal “reperfusion” injuries.
The fast cooling technique is to flush cold saline through the heart and up to the brain – the areas most vulnerable to low oxygen. To do this, the lower region of their heart must be clamped and a catheter placed into the aorta – the largest artery in the body – to carry the saline. The clamp is later removed so the saline can be artificially pumped around the whole body. It takes about 15 minutes for the patient’s temperature to drop to 10 °C. At this point they will have no blood in their body, no breathing, and no brain activity. They will be clinically dead.
In this state, almost no metabolic reactions happen in the body, so cells can survive without oxygen. Instead, they may be producing energy through what’s called anaerobic glycolysis. At normal body temperatures this can sustain cells for about 2 minutes. At low temperatures, however, glycolysis rates are so low that cells can survive for hours. The patient will be disconnected from all machinery and taken to an operating room where surgeons have up to 2 hours to fix the injury. The saline is then replaced with blood. If the heart does not restart by itself, as it did in the pig trial, the patient is resuscitated. The new blood will heat the body slowly, which should help prevent any reperfusion injuries.
The technique will be tested on 10 people, and the outcome compared with another 10 who met the criteria but who weren’t treated this way because the team wasn’t on hand. The technique will be refined then tested on another 10, says Tisherman, until there are enough results to analyse.