As anyone who reads science fiction will tell you, suspended animation is where your body is put into a state of preservation, not really living, but not dead either. It’s like a chemically induced version of hibernation, and it could help you stay alive on the way to a hospital after getting seriously hurt. Mark Roth was part of a larger DARPA initiative to extend soldier survivability after injury on the battlefield. From that research, Roth discovered that hydrogen sulfide (H2S), in small quantities, would put mammals in what was essentially a state of suspended animation. Hydrogen sulfide is toxic (it was used in chemical warfare in WWI) but in the right doses it can actively bond to oxygen receptors in your body. Replacing the need for oxygen allows mammals to lower their metabolic rates to absurdly low levels, but once the H2S is removed animals recover without any nasty side effects. Roth has found then what seems to be the perfect formula for keeping people alive after trauma. His newly formed company, Ikaria, is currently in phase II clinical trials for a liquid hydrogen sulfide product. In just a few years, suspended animation may be a common tool in hospitals and trauma centers all over the world. It almost sounds too incredible to believe. Watch Roth give an enthusiastic and really enjoyable talk at TED 2010 in the video below that explains his work and its amazing potential.
There’s a golden window after trauma, about an hour, and if you make it to a hospital in that time you have an incredibly higher statistical chance of surviving. Roth has found ways to extend that window to six hours. That’s how long he got mice to stay in hydrogen sulfide suspended animation and be revived successfully. Furthermore, those mice survived the process with only 60% of their blood! That level of blood loss represents a sever trauma – a gunshot wound or partial loss of limb. (Discussed in video around 13:00).
Hydrogen sulfide deanimation may have uses outside of severe trauma however. As Roth mentions around 14:00, H2S treatments has shown to provide a 70% reduction in damage during heart surgery in animals. Similar numbers were found for other major organ operations. Suspended animation may help the body cope with injuries and dangers of surgery. That means millions of people around the world could benefit with some well timed poison in their veins.
Roth hasn’t just experimented with poisoning animals, he’s also frozen and suffocated them, too. As he discusses in his opening, about 50% of all people who are frozen for 3 hours without a heartbeat and then resuscitated manage to live. Low oxygen levels can kill you, but very low oxygen levels (10 ppm) actually puts you in suspended animation (~5:10). Roth experimented with animals in suspended animation and found that they were protected against death from freezing (6:30). In all these cases, suspended animation kept animals alive in conditions that would normally kill them. It makes you wonder if cryogenics and long term space exploration might not be such crazy ideas.
Mark Roth has gotten a lot of attention for his work, and a MacArthur “genius” grant. Yet when you hear him describe the process by which he came to use hydrogen sulfide in his work (around 8:40) it seems more luck than genius. But that’s one of the marks of a great scientist. Most researchers are pretty smart, great researchers are smart enough to recognize luck and take advantage of it.
With a liquid dose of H2S in phase II trials, it will likely be several years before we see a suspended animation treatment on the market. Roth’s company, however, is already distributing products with a related benefit. Ikaria’s INOMAX (nitric oxide therapy) is used to treat newborns with hypoxic respiratory failure. Saving the lives of infants is clearly good news in of itself, but it has an added bonus here. With a product currently on sale, Ikaria could have the funding and savvy to gets its H2S treatments out that much sooner. Which means Roth’s vision of using suspended animation to save lives and help us achieve immortality is something to bet on. Just one of the many ways in which small doses of poison make life a little better.