Samuel Tisherman, a professor at the University of Maryland School of Medicine, is the leader of a team that has successfully put a human being in suspended animation.
Describing the successful operation as “a little surreal,” Professor Tisherman told New Scientist how he removed the patient’s blood and replaced with ice-cold saline solution.
The patient, technically dead at this point, was removed from the cooling system and taken to an operating theatre for a two-hour surgical procedure before having their blood restored and being warmed to the normal temperature of 37C.
Prof Tisherman says he will be producing a full account of the procedure in a scientific paper in the new year.
He says that his focus is on pausing life long enough to perform emergency surgery rather than sending astronauts on interstellar journeys.
He tells the story of a young man who was stabbed over a row in a bowling alley: “He was a healthy young man just minutes before, then suddenly he was dead. We could have saved him if we’d had enough time.”
His suspended animation technique is intended as a way of securing that extra time.
“I want to make clear that we’re not trying to send people off to Saturn,” he says. “We’re trying to buy ourselves more time to save lives.”
But inevitably space agencies such as NASA and the ESA – as well as more ambitious tech entrepreneurs like Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos – will be taken a keen interest in Prof Tisherman’s paper when it is published in 2020.
A journey to Saturn can take up to seven years, so keeping the crew on ice might be easier than keeping them healthy and happy for all that time.
While Prof Tisherman has released this news of one successful trial, there is no word on how many previous attempts were made with critical patients before this.
The experiment was given the go-ahead by the US Food and Drug Administration. The FDA waived the usual requirement for patient consent in this case as the patient could not be saved by any other means.
Prof Tisherman says that there may be a drug, or cocktail of drugs, that can help minimise these injuries but, he says: “but we haven’t identified all the causes of reperfusion injuries yet”.
Once he has, whether or not he wants to send a refrigerated crew to Saturn, it’s likely that sooner or later that’s exactly what will happen.