Real-Life Science Fiction: Suspended Animation and the Future of Combat Medicine
It took Dr. Mark Roth a long, long time before he realized death might be optional.
"I see this as a near immortal experience," said Roth, a cell biologist at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center in Seattle, to a group of U.S. Army Medical Research and Materiel Command Combat Casualty Care Research Program staffers during a presentation on suspended animation at Fort Detrick Feb. 7. "Just like the saying goes -- you're not really dead until you're warm and dead."
Avoiding death has been the principal focus of Roth's scientific work for over a decade. His efforts in studying the impact of "suspended animation" have earned him both international attention as well as a partnership with the Department of Defense. Essentially, Roth is trying to develop a way to induce "hibernation on demand" in animals by using small amounts of hydrogen sulfide gas to temporarily dim metabolism and thereby reduce the need for oxygen. In practice, the process is almost like using a dimmer switch on a light bulb; dropping a bright light down to a faint glow and then holding it at that level before, eventually, bringing the bulb back up to full power again.
"If you reduce the human body's demand for oxygen, then you can reduce the supply just as greatly," said Roth in a more simplistic explanation of the concept, while also pointing out the human body already manufactures small amounts of hydrogen sulfide as part of its standard daily function.
The potential benefits of such science on the battlefield are substantial.
"This could greatly influence the work we do in the world of combat casualty care," said Col. Michael R. Davis, director of the CCCRP and one of Roth's key collaborators, who admits the technique's potential to buy time for injured Warfighters is a game-changer.
To that end, and following his initial experiments with roundworms, Roth has already successfully induced a state of reversible metabolic hibernation in mice and other model organisms. Those efforts earned him a prestigious MacArthur Fellowship -- a so-called "genius grant" -- from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation in 2007, along with an eventual teaming offer from the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency shortly thereafter.
"There are plenty of instances, either in life or in the news or wherever," said Roth, "where people are cooled down and then, when they're warmed up, they spontaneously reanimate."
The bottom line for Roth, however, is saving lives. Given the potential civilian impact of his work -- especially patients such as those that are critically-ill trauma patients on organ-transplant lists or those in operating rooms and emergency rooms -- the outcome of his technique's current human trials in the next several months could be the key to forever changing the fundamentals of life, death and serious injury.
"If we can control the state of animation, then we can apply that science to the extraction of Warfighter and get them to definitive care situations in much better shape," said Roth.