Short-Term Suspended Animation for Humans Is Coming Soon
At 1 a.m., Tony B. is flown to a shock trauma center of a university hospital. Five minutes earlier, he was picked up unconscious with no blood pressure, having suffered multiple gunshot wounds with severe blood loss. Standard measures alone would not have saved his life, but on the helicopter he was injected with ice-cold fluids intravenously to begin cooling him from the inside, and given special drugs to protect his heart and brain.
Suspended animation is not routine yet, but it's going through clinical trials at the University of Maryland and the University of Pittsburgh.
A surgeon accesses Tony's aorta, allowing his body to be flushed with larger amounts of cold fluids, thereby inducing profound hypothermia -- a body temperature below 10° C (50° F). This is suspended animation, a form of human hibernation, but officially the procedure is called Emergency Preservation and Resuscitation for Cardiac Arrest from Trauma (EPR-CAT).
This chilly state, which constitutes the preservation component of Tony's care, continues for an hour as surgeons repair injuries and connect his circulation to cardiopulmonary bypass (CPB). This allows blood to move through the brain delivering oxygen at low doses appropriate for the sharply reduced metabolic rate that comes with the hypothermia, without depending on the heart and lungs. CPB also enables controlled, gradual re-warming of Tony's body as fluid and appropriate amounts of red blood cells are transfused into him.
After another hour or so, Tony's body temperature reaches the range of 32-34° C (~90-93° F), called mild hypothermia. Having begun the fluid resuscitation process already, the team stops warming Tony, switches his circulation from CPB to his own heart and lungs, and begins cardiac resuscitation with electrical jolts to his heart. With his blood pressure stable, his heart rate slow but appropriate for the mild hypothermia, Tony is maintained at this intermediate temperature for 24 hours; this last step is already standard practice in treatment of people who suffer cardiac arrest without blood loss trauma.
The purpose is to prevent brain damage that might come with the rapid influx of too much oxygen, just as a feast would mean death to a starvation victim. After he is warmed to a normal temperature of 37° C (~99° F), Tony is awakened and ultimately recovers with no brain damage.
Tony's case is fictional; EPR-CAT is not routine yet, but it's going through clinical trials at the University of Maryland and the University of Pittsburgh, under the direction of trauma surgeon Dr. Samuel Tisherman, who spent many years developing the procedure in dogs and pigs. In such cases, patients undergo suspended animation for a couple of hours at most, but other treatments are showing promise in laboratory animals, like the use of hydrogen sulfide gas without active cooling to induce suspended animation in mice. Such interventions could ultimately fuse with EPR-CAT, sending the new technology further into what's still the realm of science fiction – at least for now.
Consider the scenario of a 5-year-old girl diagnosed with a progressive, incurable, terminal disease.
Experts say that extended suspended animation – cooling patients in a stable state for months or years -- could be possible at some point, although no one can predict when the technology will be clinical reality, since hydrogen sulfide and other chemical tactics would have to move into clinical use in humans and prove safe and effective in combination with EPR-CAT, or with a similar cooling approach.
How Could Long-Term Suspended Animation Impact Humanity?
Consider the scenario of a 5-year-old girl diagnosed with a progressive, incurable, terminal disease. Since available treatments would only lengthen the projected survival by a year, she is placed into suspended animation. She is revived partially every few years, as new treatments become available that can have a major impact on her disease. After 35 years of this, she is revived completely as treatments are finally adequate to cure her condition, but biologically she has aged only a few months. Physically, she is normal now, though her parents are in their seventies, and her siblings are grown and married.
Such hypothetical scenarios raise many issues: Where will the resources come from to take care of patients for that long? Who will pay? And how will patients adapt when they emerge into a completely different world?
"Heavy resource utilization is a factor if you've got people hibernating for years or decades," says Bradford Winters, an associate professor of anesthesiology and critical care medicine, and assistant professor of neurological surgery at Johns Hopkins.
Conceivably, special high-tech facilities with robots and artificial intelligence watching over the hibernators might solve the resource issue, but even then, Winters notes that long-term hibernation would entail major disparities between the wealthy and poor. "And then there is the psychological effect of being disconnected from one's family and society for a generation or more," he says. "What happens to that 5-year-old waking to her retired parents and married siblings? Will her younger sister adopt her? What would that be like?"
Probably better than dying is one answer.
Back on Earth, human hibernation would raise daunting policy questions that may take many years to resolve.
Outside of medicine, one application of human hibernation that has intrigued generations of science fiction writers is in long-duration space travel. During a voyage lasting years or decades, space explorers or colonists not only could avoid long periods of potential boredom, but also the aging process. Considering that the alternative to "sleeper ships" would be multi-generation starships so large that they'd be like small worlds, human hibernation in spaceflight could become an enabling technology for interstellar flight.
Big Questions: It's Not Too Early to Ask
Back on Earth, the daunting policy questions may take many years to resolve. Society ought to be aware of them now, before human hibernation technology outpaces its dramatic implications.
"Our current framework of ethical and legal regulation is adequate for cases like the gunshot victim who is chilled deeply for a few hours. Short-term cryopreservation is currently part of the continuum of care," notes David N. Hoffman, a clinical ethicist and health care attorney who teaches at Columbia University, and at Yeshiva University's Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law and Albert Einstein College of Medicine.
"But we'll need a new framework when there's a capability to cryopreserve people for many years and still bring them back. There's also a legal-ethical issue involving the parties that decide to put the person into hibernation versus the patient wishes in terms of what risk benefit ratio they would accept, and who is responsible for the expense and burdens associated with cases that don't turn out just right?"
To begin thinking about practical solutions, Hoffman characterizes long-term human hibernation as an extension of the ethics of cyro-preserved embryos that are held for potential parents, often for long periods of time. But the human hibernation issue is much more complex.
"The ability of the custodian and patient to enter into a meaningful and beneficial arrangement is fraught, because medical advances necessary to address the person's illness or injury are -- by definition -- unknown," says Hoffman. "It means that you need a third party, a surrogate, to act on opportunities that the patient could never have contemplated."
Such multigenerational considerations might become more manageable, of course, in an era when gene therapy, bionic parts, and genetically engineered replacement organs enable dramatic life extension. But if people will be living for centuries regardless of whether or not they hibernate, then developing the medical technology may be the least of the challenges.
Scientists redesign bacteria to tackle the antibiotic resistance crisis
In 1945, almost two decades after Alexander Fleming discovered penicillin, he warned that as antibiotics use grows, they may lose their efficiency. He was prescient—the first case of penicillin resistance was reported two years later. Back then, not many people paid attention to Fleming’s warning. After all, the “golden era” of the antibiotics age had just began. By the 1950s, three new antibiotics derived from soil bacteria — streptomycin, chloramphenicol, and tetracycline — could cure infectious diseases like tuberculosis, cholera, meningitis and typhoid fever, among others.
Today, these antibiotics and many of their successors developed through the 1980s are gradually losing their effectiveness. The extensive overuse and misuse of antibiotics led to the rise of drug resistance. The livestock sector buys around 80 percent of all antibiotics sold in the U.S. every year. Farmers feed cows and chickens low doses of antibiotics to prevent infections and fatten up the animals, which eventually causes resistant bacterial strains to evolve. If manure from cattle is used on fields, the soil and vegetables can get contaminated with antibiotic-resistant bacteria. Another major factor is doctors overprescribing antibiotics to humans, particularly in low-income countries. Between 2000 to 2018, the global rates of human antibiotic consumption shot up by 46 percent.
In recent years, researchers have been exploring a promising avenue: the use of synthetic biology to engineer new bacteria that may work better than antibiotics. The need continues to grow, as a Lancetstudy linked antibiotic resistance to over 1.27 million deaths worldwide in 2019, surpassing HIV/AIDS and malaria. The western sub-Saharan Africa region had the highest death rate (27.3 people per 100,000).
Researchers warn that if nothing changes, by 2050, antibiotic resistance could kill 10 million people annually.
To make it worse, our remedy pipelines are drying up. Out of the 18 biggest pharmaceutical companies, 15 abandoned antibiotic development by 2013. According to the AMR Action Fund, venture capital has remained indifferent towards biotech start-ups developing new antibiotics. In 2019, at least two antibiotic start-ups filed for bankruptcy. As of December 2020, there were 43 new antibiotics in clinical development. But because they are based on previously known molecules, scientists say they are inadequate for treating multidrug-resistant bacteria. Researchers warn that if nothing changes, by 2050, antibiotic resistance could kill 10 million people annually.
The rise of synthetic biology
To circumvent this dire future, scientists have been working on alternative solutions using synthetic biology tools, meaning genetically modifying good bacteria to fight the bad ones.
From the time life evolved on earth around 3.8 billion years ago, bacteria have engaged in biological warfare. They constantly strategize new methods to combat each other by synthesizing toxic proteins that kill competition.
For example, Escherichia coli produces bacteriocins or toxins to kill other strains of E.coli that attempt to colonize the same habitat. Microbes like E.coli (which are not all pathogenic) are also naturally present in the human microbiome. The human microbiome harbors up to 100 trillion symbiotic microbial cells. The majority of them are beneficial organisms residing in the gut at different compositions.
The chemicals that these “good bacteria” produce do not pose any health risks to us, but can be toxic to other bacteria, particularly to human pathogens. For the last three decades, scientists have been manipulating bacteria’s biological warfare tactics to our collective advantage.
In the late 1990s, researchers drew inspiration from electrical and computing engineering principles that involve constructing digital circuits to control devices. In certain ways, every cell in living organisms works like a tiny computer. The cell receives messages in the form of biochemical molecules that cling on to its surface. Those messages get processed within the cells through a series of complex molecular interactions.
Synthetic biologists can harness these living cells’ information processing skills and use them to construct genetic circuits that perform specific instructions—for example, secrete a toxin that kills pathogenic bacteria. “Any synthetic genetic circuit is merely a piece of information that hangs around in the bacteria’s cytoplasm,” explains José Rubén Morones-Ramírez, a professor at the Autonomous University of Nuevo León, Mexico. Then the ribosome, which synthesizes proteins in the cell, processes that new information, making the compounds scientists want bacteria to make. “The genetic circuit remains separated from the living cell’s DNA,” Morones-Ramírez explains. When the engineered bacteria replicates, the genetic circuit doesn’t become part of its genome.
Highly intelligent by bacterial standards, some multidrug resistant V. cholerae strains can also “collaborate” with other intestinal bacterial species to gain advantage and take hold of the gut.
In 2000, Boston-based researchers constructed an E.coli with a genetic switch that toggled between turning genes on and off two. Later, they built some safety checks into their bacteria. “To prevent unintentional or deleterious consequences, in 2009, we built a safety switch in the engineered bacteria’s genetic circuit that gets triggered after it gets exposed to a pathogen," says James Collins, a professor of biological engineering at MIT and faculty member at Harvard University’s Wyss Institute. “After getting rid of the pathogen, the engineered bacteria is designed to switch off and leave the patient's body.”
Overuse and misuse of antibiotics causes resistant strains to evolve
Seek and destroy
As the field of synthetic biology developed, scientists began using engineered bacteria to tackle superbugs. They first focused on Vibrio cholerae, whichin the 19th and 20th century caused cholera pandemics in India, China, the Middle East, Europe, and Americas. Like many other bacteria, V. cholerae communicate with each other via quorum sensing, a process in which the microorganisms release different signaling molecules, to convey messages to its brethren. Highly intelligent by bacterial standards, some multidrug resistant V. choleraestrains can also “collaborate” with other intestinal bacterial species to gain advantage and take hold of the gut. When untreated, cholera has a mortality rate of 25 to 50 percent and outbreaks frequently occur in developing countries, especially during floods and droughts.
Sometimes, however, V. cholerae makes mistakes. In 2008, researchers at Cornell University observed that when quorum sensing V. cholerae accidentally released high concentrations of a signaling molecule called CAI-1, it had a counterproductive effect—the pathogen couldn’t colonize the gut.
So the group, led byJohn March, professor of biological and environmental engineering, developed a novel strategy to combat V. cholerae. They genetically engineered E.coli toeavesdrop on V. cholerae communication networks and equipped it with the ability to release the CAI-1 molecules. That interfered with V. cholerae progress.Two years later, the Cornell team showed that V. cholerae-infected mice treated with engineered E.coli had a 92 percent survival rate.
These findings inspired researchers to sic the good bacteria present in foods like yogurt and kimchi onto the drug-resistant ones.
Three years later in 2011, Singapore-based scientists engineered E.coli to detect and destroy Pseudomonas aeruginosa, an oftendrug-resistant pathogen that causes pneumonia, urinary tract infections, and sepsis. Once the genetically engineered E.coli found its target through its quorum sensing molecules, it then released a peptide, that could eradicate 99 percent of P. aeruginosa cells in a test-tube experiment. The team outlined their work in a Molecular Systems Biology study.
“At the time, we knew that we were entering new, uncharted territory,” says lead author Matthew Chang, an associate professor and synthetic biologist at the National University of Singapore and lead author of the study. “To date, we are still in the process of trying to understand how long these microbes stay in our bodies and how they might continue to evolve.”
More teams followed the same path. In a 2013 study, MIT researchers also genetically engineered E.coli to detect P. aeruginosa via the pathogen’s quorum-sensing molecules. It then destroyed the pathogen by secreting a lab-made toxin.
Probiotics that fight
A year later in 2014, a Nature study found that the abundance of Ruminococcus obeum, a probiotic bacteria naturally occurring in the human microbiome, interrupts and reduces V.cholerae’s colonization— by detecting the pathogen’s quorum sensing molecules. The natural accumulation of R. obeumin Bangladeshi adults helped them recover from cholera despite living in an area with frequent outbreaks.
The findings from 2008 to 2014 inspired Collins and his team to delve into how good bacteria present in foods like yogurt and kimchi can attack drug-resistant bacteria. In 2018, Collins and his team developed the engineered probiotic strategy. They tweaked a commonly found bacteria in yogurt called Lactococcus lactis.
Engineered bacteria can be trained to target pathogens when they are at their most vulnerable metabolic stage in the human gut. --José Rubén Morones-Ramírez.
More scientists followed with more experiments. So far, researchers have engineered various probiotic organisms to fight pathogenic bacteria like Staphylococcus aureus (leading cause of skin, tissue, bone, joint and blood infections) and Clostridium perfringens (which causes watery diarrhea) in test-tube and animal experiments. In 2020, Russian scientists engineered a probiotic called Pichia pastoris to produce an enzyme called lysostaphin that eradicated S. aureus in vitro. Another 2020 study from China used an engineered probiotic bacteria Lactobacilli casei as a vaccine to prevent C. perfringens infection in rabbits.
In a study last year, Ramírez’s group at the Autonomous University of Nuevo León, engineered E. coli to detect quorum-sensing molecules from Methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus or MRSA, a notorious superbug. The E. coli then releases a bacteriocin that kills MRSA. “An antibiotic is just a molecule that is not intelligent,” says Ramírez. “On the other hand, engineered bacteria can be trained to target pathogens when they are at their most vulnerable metabolic stage in the human gut.”
Collins and Timothy Lu, an associate professor of biological engineering at MIT, found that engineered E. coli can help treat other conditions—such as phenylketonuria, a rare metabolic disorder, that causes the build-up of an amino acid phenylalanine. Their start-up Synlogic aims to commercialize the technology, and has completed a phase 2 clinical trial.
Circumventing the challenges
The bacteria-engineering technique is not without pitfalls. One major challenge is that beneficial gut bacteria produce their own quorum-sensing molecules that can be similar to those that pathogens secrete. If an engineered bacteria’s biosensor is not specific enough, it will be ineffective.
Another concern is whether engineered bacteria might mutate after entering the gut. “As with any technology, there are risks where bad actors could have the capability to engineer a microbe to act quite nastily,” says Collins of MIT. But Collins and Ramírez both insist that the chances of the engineered bacteria mutating on its own are virtually non-existent. “It is extremely unlikely for the engineered bacteria to mutate,” Ramírez says. “Coaxing a living cell to do anything on command is immensely challenging. Usually, the greater risk is that the engineered bacteria entirely lose its functionality.”
However, the biggest challenge is bringing the curative bacteria to consumers. Pharmaceutical companies aren’t interested in antibiotics or their alternatives because it’s less profitable than developing new medicines for non-infectious diseases. Unlike the more chronic conditions like diabetes or cancer that require long-term medications, infectious diseases are usually treated much quicker. Running clinical trials are expensive and antibiotic-alternatives aren’t lucrative enough.
“Unfortunately, new medications for antibiotic resistant infections have been pushed to the bottom of the field,” says Lu of MIT. “It's not because the technology does not work. This is more of a market issue. Because clinical trials cost hundreds of millions of dollars, the only solution is that governments will need to fund them.” Lu stresses that societies must lobby to change how the modern healthcare industry works. “The whole world needs better treatments for antibiotic resistance.”
Meet Dr. Renee Wegrzyn, the first Director of President Biden's new health agency, ARPA-H
In today’s podcast episode, I talk with Renee Wegrzyn, appointed by President Biden as the first director of a health agency created last year, the Advanced Research Projects Agency for Health, or ARPA-H. It’s inspired by DARPA, the agency that develops innovations for the Defense department and has been credited with hatching world-changing technologies such as ARPANET, which became the internet.
Time will tell if ARPA-H will lead to similar achievements in the realm of health. That’s what President Biden and Congress expect in return for funding ARPA-H at 2.5 billion dollars over three years.
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How will the agency figure out which projects to take on, especially with so many patient advocates for different diseases demanding moonshot funding for rapid progress?
I talked with Dr. Wegrzyn about the opportunities and challenges, what lessons ARPA-H is borrowing from Operation Warp Speed, how she decided on the first ARPA-H project that was announced recently, why a separate agency was needed instead of reforming HHS and the National Institutes of Health to be better at innovation, and how ARPA-H will make progress on disease prevention in addition to treatments for cancer, Alzheimer’s and diabetes, among many other health priorities.
Dr. Wegrzyn’s resume leaves no doubt of her suitability for this role. She was a program manager at DARPA where she focused on applying gene editing and synthetic biology to the goal of improving biosecurity. For her work there, she received the Superior Public Service Medal and, in case that wasn’t enough ARPA experience, she also worked at another ARPA that leads advanced projects in intelligence, called I-ARPA. Before that, she ran technical teams in the private sector working on gene therapies and disease diagnostics, among other areas. She has been a vice president of business development at Gingko Bioworks and headed innovation at Concentric by Gingko. Her training and education includes a PhD and undergraduate degree in applied biology from the Georgia Institute of Technology and she did her postdoc as an Alexander von Humboldt Fellow in Heidelberg, Germany.
Dr. Wegrzyn told me that she’s “in the hot seat.” The pressure is on for ARPA-H especially after the need and potential for health innovation was spot lit by the pandemic and the unprecedented speed of vaccine development. We'll soon find out if ARPA-H can produce gamechangers in health that are equivalent to DARPA’s creation of the internet.
ARPA-H - https://arpa-h.gov/
Dr. Wegrzyn profile - https://arpa-h.gov/people/renee-wegrzyn/
Dr. Wegrzyn Twitter - https://twitter.com/rwegrzyn?lang=en
President Biden Announces Dr. Wegrzyn's appointment - https://www.whitehouse.gov/briefing-room/statement...
Leaps.org coverage of ARPA-H - https://leaps.org/arpa/
ARPA-H program for joints to heal themselves - https://arpa-h.gov/news/nitro/ -
ARPA-H virtual talent search - https://arpa-h.gov/news/aco-talent-search/
Dr. Renee Wegrzyn was appointed director of ARPA-H last October.
Matt Fuchs is the editor-in-chief of Leaps.org and Making Sense of Science. He is also a contributing reporter to the Washington Post and has written for the New York Times, Time Magazine, WIRED and the Washington Post Magazine, among other outlets. Follow him @fuchswriter.