Gunshot and knife-wound victims don’t have much time before their injuries turn fatal. How fast victims get to the ER typically means the difference between life and death. A groundbreaking technique being developed at Pittsburgh’s UPMC Presbyterian Hospital could buy doctors enough time to treat injuries before they turn lethal.
The method involves cooling down patients by replacing their blood with a cold saline solution, which drops their temperature and stops almost all cellular activity.
“We are suspending life, but we don’t like to call it suspended animation because it sounds like science fiction,” Samuel Tisherman, a surgeon at the hospital who is leading the trial, told New Scientist. “So we call it emergency preservation and resuscitation.”
To replace a patient’s blood and drop his temperature to 50 degrees Fahrenheit takes about 15 minutes. By then, the patient is clinically dead — no breathing, no brain activity. Yet, at such low temperatures, cells can still survive for hours.
The idea is that, in this state, patients will be unplugged from the medical machinery and taken to an operating room where surgeons have up to two hours to make necessary repairs. Once finished, the saline is replaced with blood, which slowly warms the body. If the heart doesn't start beating on its own, it can be resuscitated.
Doctors are now on call to perform the procedure at UPMC Presbyterian Hospital and plan to do so later this month. Getting the go-ahead to perform such a technique hasn’t been easy, since it involves medical emergencies when neither the patient nor their family can give consent. But since the method involves people whose injuries are likely to be fatal, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration gave the green light. However, those who want to opt out of such a procedure can do so online.
While the technique certainly sounds miraculous, doctors remain grounded. “We’ve always assumed that you can’t bring back the dead. But it’s a matter of when you pickle the cells,” said Peter Rhee, a surgeon from University of Arizona in Tucson, who helped develop the method.