The sci-fi idea of suspended animation is now buying ER surgeons more time

Nowadays, it seems things that you would only see in science fiction films are becoming a reality all the time. The latest example of sci-fi-turned-reality comes from the University of Maryland Medical Center where doctors have successfully placed humans in suspended animation for the first time.

Scientists (and sci-fi fans) have been talking about suspended animation for years. The idea that the functions of the human body can somehow be put on “pause” while life-saving medical procedures are performed (or a person is sent into space, a la Alien) has long seemed untenable. But now scientists have actually made it happened, with the consequences being potentially huge for the future of emergency room surgery.

The technique is officially called “emergency preservation and resuscitation” (EPR) and is being tested on patients that arrive with acute trauma, such as a stab wound or gunshot. Given the nature of their injuries, these patients would normally have a survival rate of less than five percent.

With EPR, the patient is cooled rapidly by replacing their blood with ice-cold saline — the heart stops beating and brain activity almost completely stops. At normal body temperatures, cells need a constant supply of oxygen to remain alive, but the cold temperature slows or stops the chemical reactions in cells, which need less oxygen as a result.

The human brain can survive for around five minutes without oxygen before damage occurs, but through EPR a surgical team has two hours to work on the patient’s injuries before they’re warmed up and their heart is restarted. Full results of the trial will be announced by the end of 2020, but results thus far show we’re getting very close to being able to “buy time” for critical patients with little time to spare.

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