Surgeons in Pennsylvania are expected to make history next month when they begin testing a technique that suspends trauma patients in a state between life and death.
The groundbreaking technique known as “suspended animation” could save the lives of patients with potentially fatal injuries like gunshot wounds or stab wounds whose hearts cannot immediately be restarted, doctors say. Using a rapid cooling technique, doctors will essentially "shut off" the patient's body and then bring it "back to life" after surgery. The procedure has never been performed on humans.
“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,” Dr. Peter Rhee, a surgeon at University of Arizona in Tucson, who helped develop the technique, told New Scientist.
Doctors at UPMC Presbyterian Hospital in Pittsburgh, Pa., built upon an induced hypothermia technique that has been around for decades, according to the hospital’s 2011 media release. The technique involves doctors draining a patient’s blood and replacing it with a cold saline solution, which allows for the patient’s body to drastically cool down by about 50 degrees.
"We have patients coming in from bad trauma who have a cardiac arrest. The chances we can save them are less than 10 percent. The biggest problem is that this is a race against time. The idea is to rapidly cool them to basically stop the clock," Dr. Samuel A. Tisherman, the surgeon who will lead the first trial, told The Huffington Post over the phone Friday.
Bringing down a patient’s body temperature allows for the brain and other vital organs to be sustained longer. This gives doctors more time to operate. Once surgery is complete, doctors slowly warm the body and pump back in the patient’s blood, the release notes.
"The thing is, we know what we have now currently doesn’t work very well. We have patients come into our trauma center all the time, and we say 'Oh, we were so close.' If we have something that is going to buy us more time and control bleeding and save someone we normally can’t, [we should try it]," Tisherman told HuffPost.
Now, with government approval, doctors are finally set to begin the trial on humans. But as New Scientist notes, the hospital will have to wait for the right patients to come through the door.
"The ideal patient is someone who has a gun or stab wound and just before they get to the emergency department they lose their pulse, and we do our normal thing and they don’t immediately come back. Somebody that’s in bad shape and arrests in front of us. That’s the perfect patient," Tisherman said.
Doctors reportedly plan to test out the procedure on 10 patients and compare the results with 10 other patients who do not undergo the rapid cooling method.