These death cheaters survived by entering a state of suspended animation, in which the machinery of life temporarily comes to a grinding halt. Far more than a biological curiosity, suspended animation has the makings of a powerful medical tool. In the past five years, labs around the country have begun artificially inducing this state by cooling animals to ultralow temperatures, pumping them full of fake blood, and plying them with toxic gases in order to reversibly arrest life’s basic processes. Human tests are now just around the corner. If successful, they will pave the way for a revolution in trauma care that could save the lives of thousands of patients—suffering heart attacks, strokes, or near-fatal injuries—who would survive if only there were a way to shut down the body long enough to reach the operating room.
Two summers ago, anesthesiologist Patrick Kochanek of the Safar Center for Resuscitation Research at the University of Pittsburgh dramatically demonstrated the power of suspended animation. He and his team revived dogs that had been clinically dead for three hours—with no heartbeat, no breathing, and no brain activity. The researchers discovered they could preserve a dog in limbo for several hours by cooling the animal and flushing its veins with a chilled solution of salt, glucose, and dissolved oxygen. The dogs came back to life after they were given a blood transfusion and reheated, although a few of them experienced minor brain damage.
To the horror of the Safar scientists, the tabloid press responded to this work with morbid glee, publishing ghoulish stories about “zombie dogs” alongside images of werewolves. Such slavering was perhaps unsurprising, given that suspended animation has often been associated with sci-fi images of astronauts hibernating in pods en route to distant stars. In the late 1960s and 1970s, NASA even funded research on halting metabolic activity during long-duration space travel but abandoned the effort after it was deemed technologically unfeasible. These days it is the United States military and the National Institutes of Health that finance such research, with the Safar group—which now hides behind a cloak of silence—being one of the grantees.