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Doctors put a patient into ‘suspended animation’ for first time © Shutterstock

Doctors put a patient into ‘suspended animation’ for first time

Published: 18th December, 2019 at 09:24
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Ground-breaking technique involves rapidly cooling the brain down to 10-15°C.

Researchers in the US have successfully placed a live human patient in ‘suspended animation’ for the first time, a spokesperson from the University of Maryland has confirmed. It is hoped that the technique could help surgeons to save the lives of patients with severe injuries such as stab wounds or gunshots whose hearts have stopped beating, they say.


The technique, dubbed ‘Emergency Preservation and Resuscitation’ (EPR), is being tested by a team at the Shock Trauma Center at the University of Maryland Medical Center. It involves pumping ice-cold saline directly into the body via a cannula inserted directly into the aorta to replace the blood being lost. This induces a deep state of ‘hypothermic preservation’ – as low as 10-15°C – not unlike the state known in science fiction as ‘suspended animation’. This is not cooling by a few degrees after a carefully controlled cardiac resuscitation; it is more like freezing someone and operating on them while they are technically dead.

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Normally, doctors would expect somebody with no blood reaching the brain to die or suffer irreversible brain damage within five minutes, but with EPR patients can potentially be kept alive for upwards of two hours. Once the lifesaving surgery has been completed, the patient is gradually warmed back up to a body temperature of 37°C.

“Trauma patients who lose so much blood that the heart stops very rarely survive, even with blood transfusions and CPR. We have developed Emergency Preservation and Resuscitation using hypothermia to decrease the body’s need for oxygen and blood flow to see if we can buy time to save these patients who are dying in front of us,” said Prof Samuel Tisherman, who led the research team. “We are currently looking at the safety and feasibility of the EPR cooling technique. Our main goal is to demonstrate that we can do it and that it works.”

Hypothermic preservation could prevent brain death in critically injured patients who have lost a lot of blood © Getty Images
Hypothermic preservation could prevent brain death in critically injured patients who have lost a lot of blood © Getty Images

Tisherman presented the findings of the ongoing clinical trial at a research event held at the New York Academy of Sciences. The study hopes to compare the outcomes of 10 patients who received the ‘hypothermic preservation’ treatment with 10 who received traditional emergency treatment and is due for completion by the end of 2020.


So far, the technique has reportedly only been used to successfully place a patient into the ‘hypothermic preservation’ state. It is not clear whether or not the patient survived the resulting operation.


Jason Goodyer
Jason GoodyerCommissioning editor, BBC Science Focus

Jason is the commissioning editor for BBC Science Focus. He holds an MSc in physics and was named Section Editor of the Year by the British Society of Magazine Editors in 2019. He has been reporting on science and technology for more than a decade. During this time, he's walked the tunnels of the Large Hadron Collider, watched Stephen Hawking deliver his Reith Lecture on Black Holes and reported on everything from simulation universes to dancing cockatoos. He looks after the magazine’s and website’s news sections and makes regular appearances on the Science Focus Podcast.


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