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Freezing a Body for Surgery May Save Lives


It may sound like science fiction, but freezing a body - suspended animation if you will - for surgery is a technique about to be tested in the first human trials. Known in professional circles as induced extreme hypothermia, this technique may save the lives of individuals who have experienced serious trauma.

Survival is Better for Trauma Patients Who Undergo Freezing

Patients who are victims of severe trauma are typically clinging to life when they reach the hospital. The surgery they need places them in additional jeopardy, and so putting their body in a state of induced extreme hypothermia can give surgeons additional time plus protect the patient’s brain and other organs from damage.

While the normal human body temperature is 37 degrees C (98.6 F), people usually die quickly if their core body temperature falls below 22 degrees C. Extreme hypothermia involves cooling the body to as low as 10 degrees C.

To reach this core temperature, a patient’s blood is replaced with a cold solution. Dr. Hasan Alam, the surgeon who is leading research at Massachusetts General Hospital using this technique, noted that use of this technique in animals has been very successful, and now the first human trials are about to begin.

“If you drop the body’s core temperature and brain temperature down to 15 C or 10 degrees C you are talking about 60 minutes and even 190 minutes of protection,” explained Alam in a UK Telegraph article. He noted that this technique “can convert almost certain death into a 90 percent survival rate.”

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The freezing technique, which is being developed at Harvard Medical School and the Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston, is being featured in a BBC Two Horizon documentary. To achieve a low core body temperature, a pump is connected to the major blood vessels around the heart to remove the warm blood and replace it with cold saline solution.

Rapid cooling of the body prevents brain death, which usually occurs after four or five minutes as low oxygen levels cause the cells to produce poisons that kill them. Putting the cells into suspended animation does not allow this to occur.

A similar technique is already being used at Yale New Haven Hospital in southern Connecticut on heart patients. Patients at this facility have their heart and brain cooled to around 20 degrees C before surgeons turn off life support machines to allow them to perform the necessary procedure for up to one hour before the patient’s body temperature is returned to normal.

Mild induced hypothermia has been used for some time in patients with cardiac arrest, in which a person’s core temperature is reduced to about 32 to 34 degrees C. Patients who suffer acute stroke are also sometimes treated with mild induced hypothermia.

Science fiction is coming to life: freezing a body via induced extreme hypothermia may save the lives of individuals who would likely otherwise die due to trauma or another serious condition. According to Dr. Kevin Fong, an anesthetist at University College London who presents the Horizon special, “These techniques are essentially taking people to the brink of death and then bringing them back to life.”

UK Telegraph