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.
The Friday Five covers five stories in research that you may have missed this week. There are plenty of controversies and troubling ethical issues in science – and we get into many of them in our online magazine – but this news roundup focuses on scientific creativity and progress to give you a therapeutic dose of inspiration headed into the weekend.
Here are the promising studies covered in this week's Friday Five:
- How to improve your working memory
- A plain old solution to stress
- Progress on a deadly cancer for first time since 1995*
- Rise of the robot surgeon
- Tomato brain power
And in an honorable mention this week, new research on the gut connection to better brain health after strokes.
* The methodology for this study has come under scrutiny here.
Elaine Kamil had just returned home after a few days of business meetings in 2013 when she started having chest pains. At first Kamil, then 66, wasn't worried—she had had some chest pain before and recently went to a cardiologist to do a stress test, which was normal.
"I can't be having a heart attack because I just got checked," she thought, attributing the discomfort to stress and high demands of her job. A pediatric nephrologist at Cedars-Sinai Hospital in Los Angeles, she takes care of critically ill children who are on dialysis or are kidney transplant patients. Supporting families through difficult times and answering calls at odd hours is part of her daily routine, and often leaves her exhausted.
She figured the pain would go away. But instead, it intensified that night. Kamil's husband drove her to the Cedars-Sinai hospital, where she was admitted to the coronary care unit. It turned out she wasn't having a heart attack after all. Instead, she was diagnosed with a much less common but nonetheless dangerous heart condition called takotsubo syndrome, or broken heart syndrome.
A heart attack happens when blood flow to the heart is obstructed—such as when an artery is blocked—causing heart muscle tissue to die. In takotsubo syndrome, the blood flow isn't blocked, but the heart doesn't pump it properly. The heart changes its shape and starts to resemble a Japanese fishing device called tako-tsubo, a clay pot with a wider body and narrower mouth, used to catch octopus.
"The heart muscle is stunned and doesn't function properly anywhere from three days to three weeks," explains Noel Bairey Merz, the cardiologist at Cedar Sinai who Kamil went to see after she was discharged.
"The heart muscle is stunned and doesn't function properly anywhere from three days to three weeks."
But even though the heart isn't permanently damaged, mortality rates due to takotsubo syndrome are comparable to those of a heart attack, Merz notes—about 4-5 percent of patients die from the attack, and 20 percent within the next five years. "It's as bad as a heart attack," Merz says—only it's much less known, even to doctors. The condition affects only about 1 percent of people, and there are around 15,000 new cases annually. It's diagnosed using a cardiac ventriculogram, an imaging test that allows doctors to see how the heart pumps blood.
Scientists don't fully understand what causes Takotsubo syndrome, but it usually occurs after extreme emotional or physical stress. Doctors think it's triggered by a so-called catecholamine storm, a phenomenon in which the body releases too much catecholamines—hormones involved in the fight-or-flight response. Evolutionarily, when early humans lived in savannas or forests and had to either fight off predators or flee from them, these hormones gave our ancestors the needed strength and stamina to take either action. Released by nerve endings and by the adrenal glands that sit on top of the kidneys, these hormones still flood our bodies in moments of stress, but an overabundance of them could sometimes be damaging.
A study by scientists at Harvard Medical School linked increased risk of takotsubo to higher activity in the amygdala, a brain region responsible for emotions that's involved in responses to stress. The scientists believe that chronic stress makes people more susceptible to the syndrome. Notably, one small study suggested that the number of Takotsubo cases increased during the COVID-19 pandemic.
There are no specific drugs to treat takotsubo, so doctors rely on supportive therapies, which include medications typically used for high blood pressure and heart failure. In most cases, the heart returns to its normal shape within a few weeks. "It's a spontaneous recovery—the catecholamine storm is resolved, the injury trigger is removed and the heart heals itself because our bodies have an amazing healing capacity," Merz says. It also helps that tissues remain intact. 'The heart cells don't die, they just aren't functioning properly for some time."
That's the good news. The bad news is that takotsubo is likely to strike again—in 5-20 percent of patients the condition comes back, sometimes more severe than before.
That's exactly what happened to Kamil. After getting her diagnosis in 2013, she realized that she actually had a previous takotsubo episode. In 2010, she experienced similar symptoms after her son died. "The night after he died, I was having severe chest pain at night, but I was too overwhelmed with grief to do anything about it," she recalls. After a while, the pain subsided and didn't return until three years later.
For weeks after her second attack, she felt exhausted, listless and anxious. "You lose confidence in your body," she says. "You have these little twinges on your chest, or if you start having arrhythmia, and you wonder if this is another episode coming up. It's really unnerving because you don't know how to read these cues." And that's very typical, Merz says. Even when the heart muscle appears to recover, patients don't return to normal right away. They have shortens of breath, they can't exercise, and they stay anxious and worried for a while.
Women over the age of 50 are diagnosed with takotsubo more often than other demographics. However, it happens in men too, although it typically strikes after physical stress, such as a triathlon or an exhausting day of cycling. Young people can also get takotsubo. Older patients are hospitalized more often, but younger people tend to have more severe complications. It could be because an older person may go for a jog while younger one may run a marathon, which would take a stronger toll on the body of a person who's predisposed to the condition.
Notably, the emotional stressors don't always have to be negative—the heart muscle can get out of shape from good emotions, too. "There have been case reports of takotsubo at weddings," Merz says. Moreover, one out of three or four takotsubo patients experience no apparent stress, she adds. "So it could be that it's not so much the catecholamine storm itself, but the body's reaction to it—the physiological reaction deeply embedded into out physiology," she explains.
Merz and her team are working to understand what makes people predisposed to takotsubo. They think a person's genetics play a role, but they haven't yet pinpointed genes that seem to be responsible. Genes code for proteins, which affect how the body metabolizes various compounds, which, in turn, affect the body's response to stress. Pinning down the protein involved in takotsubo susceptibility would allow doctors to develop screening tests and identify those prone to severe repeating attacks. It will also help develop medications that can either prevent it or treat it better than just waiting for the body to heal itself.
Researchers at the Imperial College London found that elevated levels of certain types of microRNAs—molecules involved in protein production—increase the chances of developing takotsubo.
In one study, researchers tried treating takotsubo in mice with a drug called suberanilohydroxamic acid, or SAHA, typically used for cancer treatment. The drug improved cardiac health and reversed the broken heart in rodents. It remains to be seen if the drug would have a similar effect on humans. But identifying a drug that shows promise is progress, Merz says. "I'm glad that there's research in this area."
This article was originally published by Leaps.org on July 28, 2021.