At 1 a.m., Tony B. is flown to a shock trauma center of a university hospital. Five minutes earlier, he was picked up unconscious with no blood pressure, having suffered multiple gunshot wounds with severe blood loss. Standard measures alone would not have saved his life, but on the helicopter he was injected with ice-cold fluids intravenously to begin cooling him from the inside, and given special drugs to protect his heart and brain.
Suspended animation is not routine yet, but it's going through clinical trials at the University of Maryland and the University of Pittsburgh.
A surgeon accesses Tony's aorta, allowing his body to be flushed with larger amounts of cold fluids, thereby inducing profound hypothermia -- a body temperature below 10° C (50° F). This is suspended animation, a form of human hibernation, but officially the procedure is called Emergency Preservation and Resuscitation for Cardiac Arrest from Trauma (EPR-CAT).
This chilly state, which constitutes the preservation component of Tony's care, continues for an hour as surgeons repair injuries and connect his circulation to cardiopulmonary bypass (CPB). This allows blood to move through the brain delivering oxygen at low doses appropriate for the sharply reduced metabolic rate that comes with the hypothermia, without depending on the heart and lungs. CPB also enables controlled, gradual re-warming of Tony's body as fluid and appropriate amounts of red blood cells are transfused into him.
After another hour or so, Tony's body temperature reaches the range of 32-34° C (~90-93° F), called mild hypothermia. Having begun the fluid resuscitation process already, the team stops warming Tony, switches his circulation from CPB to his own heart and lungs, and begins cardiac resuscitation with electrical jolts to his heart. With his blood pressure stable, his heart rate slow but appropriate for the mild hypothermia, Tony is maintained at this intermediate temperature for 24 hours; this last step is already standard practice in treatment of people who suffer cardiac arrest without blood loss trauma.
The purpose is to prevent brain damage that might come with the rapid influx of too much oxygen, just as a feast would mean death to a starvation victim. After he is warmed to a normal temperature of 37° C (~99° F), Tony is awakened and ultimately recovers with no brain damage.
Tony's case is fictional; EPR-CAT is not routine yet, but it's going through clinical trials at the University of Maryland and the University of Pittsburgh, under the direction of trauma surgeon Dr. Samuel Tisherman, who spent many years developing the procedure in dogs and pigs. In such cases, patients undergo suspended animation for a couple of hours at most, but other treatments are showing promise in laboratory animals, like the use of hydrogen sulfide gas without active cooling to induce suspended animation in mice. Such interventions could ultimately fuse with EPR-CAT, sending the new technology further into what's still the realm of science fiction – at least for now.
Consider the scenario of a 5-year-old girl diagnosed with a progressive, incurable, terminal disease.
Experts say that extended suspended animation – cooling patients in a stable state for months or years -- could be possible at some point, although no one can predict when the technology will be clinical reality, since hydrogen sulfide and other chemical tactics would have to move into clinical use in humans and prove safe and effective in combination with EPR-CAT, or with a similar cooling approach.
How Could Long-Term Suspended Animation Impact Humanity?
Consider the scenario of a 5-year-old girl diagnosed with a progressive, incurable, terminal disease. Since available treatments would only lengthen the projected survival by a year, she is placed into suspended animation. She is revived partially every few years, as new treatments become available that can have a major impact on her disease. After 35 years of this, she is revived completely as treatments are finally adequate to cure her condition, but biologically she has aged only a few months. Physically, she is normal now, though her parents are in their seventies, and her siblings are grown and married.
Such hypothetical scenarios raise many issues: Where will the resources come from to take care of patients for that long? Who will pay? And how will patients adapt when they emerge into a completely different world?
"Heavy resource utilization is a factor if you've got people hibernating for years or decades," says Bradford Winters, an associate professor of anesthesiology and critical care medicine, and assistant professor of neurological surgery at Johns Hopkins.
Conceivably, special high-tech facilities with robots and artificial intelligence watching over the hibernators might solve the resource issue, but even then, Winters notes that long-term hibernation would entail major disparities between the wealthy and poor. "And then there is the psychological effect of being disconnected from one's family and society for a generation or more," he says. "What happens to that 5-year-old waking to her retired parents and married siblings? Will her younger sister adopt her? What would that be like?"
Probably better than dying is one answer.
Back on Earth, human hibernation would raise daunting policy questions that may take many years to resolve.
Outside of medicine, one application of human hibernation that has intrigued generations of science fiction writers is in long-duration space travel. During a voyage lasting years or decades, space explorers or colonists not only could avoid long periods of potential boredom, but also the aging process. Considering that the alternative to "sleeper ships" would be multi-generation starships so large that they'd be like small worlds, human hibernation in spaceflight could become an enabling technology for interstellar flight.
Big Questions: It's Not Too Early to Ask
Back on Earth, the daunting policy questions may take many years to resolve. Society ought to be aware of them now, before human hibernation technology outpaces its dramatic implications.
"Our current framework of ethical and legal regulation is adequate for cases like the gunshot victim who is chilled deeply for a few hours. Short-term cryopreservation is currently part of the continuum of care," notes David N. Hoffman, a clinical ethicist and health care attorney who teaches at Columbia University, and at Yeshiva University's Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law and Albert Einstein College of Medicine.
"But we'll need a new framework when there's a capability to cryopreserve people for many years and still bring them back. There's also a legal-ethical issue involving the parties that decide to put the person into hibernation versus the patient wishes in terms of what risk benefit ratio they would accept, and who is responsible for the expense and burdens associated with cases that don't turn out just right?"
To begin thinking about practical solutions, Hoffman characterizes long-term human hibernation as an extension of the ethics of cyro-preserved embryos that are held for potential parents, often for long periods of time. But the human hibernation issue is much more complex.
"The ability of the custodian and patient to enter into a meaningful and beneficial arrangement is fraught, because medical advances necessary to address the person's illness or injury are -- by definition -- unknown," says Hoffman. "It means that you need a third party, a surrogate, to act on opportunities that the patient could never have contemplated."
Such multigenerational considerations might become more manageable, of course, in an era when gene therapy, bionic parts, and genetically engineered replacement organs enable dramatic life extension. But if people will be living for centuries regardless of whether or not they hibernate, then developing the medical technology may be the least of the challenges.
On the morning of April 12, 1955, newsrooms across the United States inked headlines onto newsprint: the Salk Polio vaccine was "safe, effective, and potent." This was long-awaited news. Americans had limped through decades of fear, unaware of what caused polio or how to cure it, faced with the disease's terrifying, visible power to paralyze and kill, particularly children.
The announcement of the polio vaccine was celebrated with noisy jubilation: church bells rang, factory whistles sounded, people wept in the streets. Within weeks, mass inoculation began as the nation put its faith in a vaccine that would end polio.
Today, most of us are blissfully ignorant of child polio deaths, making it easier to believe that we have not personally benefited from the development of vaccines. According to Dr. Steven Pinker, cognitive psychologist and author of the bestselling book Enlightenment Now, we've become blasé to the gifts of science. "The default expectation is not that disease is part of life and science is a godsend, but that health is the default, and any disease is some outrage," he says.
The Rise and Fall of Public Trust<p>When the polio vaccine was released in 1955, "we were nearing an all-time high point in public trust," says Matt Baum, Harvard Kennedy School professor and lead author of <a href="http://www.kateto.net/covid19/COVID19%20CONSORTIUM%20REPORT%2013%20TRUST%20SEP%202020.pdf" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer"><u>several</u></a> <a href="https://shorensteincenter.org/wp-content/uploads/2020/09/COVID19-CONSORTIUM-REPORT-14-MISINFO-SEP-2020.pdf" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer"><u>reports</u></a> measuring public trust and vaccine confidence. Baum explains that the U.S. was experiencing a post-war boom following the Allied triumph in WWII, a popular Roosevelt presidency, and the rapid innovation that elevated the country to an international superpower.</p><p> The 1950s witnessed the emergence of nuclear technology, a space program, and unprecedented medical breakthroughs, adds Emily Brunson, Texas State University anthropologist and co-chair of the Working Group on Readying Populations for COVID-19 Vaccine. "Antibiotics were a game changer," she states. While before, people got sick with pneumonia for a month, suddenly they had access to pills that accelerated recovery. </p><p>During this period, science seemed to hold all the answers; people embraced the idea that we could "come to know the world with an absolute truth," Brunson explains. Doctors were portrayed as unquestioned gods, so Americans were primed to trust experts who told them the polio vaccine was safe. </p>
The Shift in How We Consume Information<p>In the 1950s, the media created an informational consensus. The fundamental ideas the public consumed about the state of the world were unified. "People argued about the best solutions, but didn't fundamentally disagree on the factual baseline," says Baum. Indeed, the messaging around the polio vaccine was centralized and consistent, led by President Roosevelt's successful <a href="https://files.eric.ed.gov/fulltext/EJ978264.pdf" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer"><u>March of Dimes crusade</u></a>. People of lower socioeconomic status with limited access to this information were <a href="https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1551508/?page=3" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer"><u>less likely to have confidence</u></a> in the vaccine, but most people consumed <a href="https://www.c-span.org/video/?506891-1/a-special-report-polio" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer"><u>media that assured them</u></a> of the vaccine's safety and <a href="https://www.cbsnews.com/news/the-salk-polio-vaccine-greatest-public-health-experiment-in-history/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer"><u>mobilized them</u></a> to receive it. </p><p>Today, the information we consume is no longer centralized—in fact, just the opposite. "When you take that away, it's hard for people to know what to trust and what not to trust," Baum explains. We've witnessed an increase in polarization and the technology that makes it easier to give people what they want to hear, reinforcing the human tendencies to vilify the other side and reinforce our preexisting ideas. When information is engineered to further an agenda, each choice and risk calculation made while navigating the COVID-19 pandemic <a href="https://www.nytimes.com/2020/12/19/opinion/sunday/coronavirus-science.html?referringSource=articleShare" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer"><u>is deeply politicized</u></a>. </p><p>This polarization maps onto a rise in socioeconomic inequality and economic uncertainty. These factors, associated with a sense of lost control, prime people to embrace misinformation, explains Baum, especially when the situation is difficult to comprehend. "The beauty of conspiratorial thinking is that it provides answers to all these questions," he says. Today's insidious fragmentation of news media accelerates the circulation of mis- and disinformation, reaching more people faster, regardless of veracity or motivation. In the case of vaccines, skepticism around their origin, safety, and motivation is intensified. </p><p>Alongside the rise in polarization, Pinker says "the emotional tone of the news has gone downward since the 1940s, and journalists consider it a professional responsibility to cover the negative." Relentless focus on everything that goes wrong further erodes public trust and paints a picture of the world getting worse. "Life saved is not a news story," says Pinker, but perhaps it should be, he continues. "If people were more aware of how much better life was generally, they might be more receptive to improvements that will continue to make life better. These improvements don't happen by themselves."</p>
The Future Depends on Vaccine Confidence<p>So far, the U.S. has been unable to mitigate the catastrophic effects of the pandemic through social distancing, testing, and contact tracing. President Trump has <a href="https://www.washingtonpost.com/politics/bob-woodward-rage-book-trump/2020/09/09/0368fe3c-efd2-11ea-b4bc-3a2098fc73d4_story.html" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer"><u>downplayed the effects and threat of the virus</u></a>, <a href="https://www.washingtonpost.com/outlook/2020/07/14/cdc-directors-trump-politics/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer"><u>censored experts and scientists</u></a>, <a href="https://www.theatlantic.com/science/archive/2020/06/america-giving-up-on-pandemic/612796/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer"><u>given up on containing the spread</u></a>, and <a href="https://www.nytimes.com/2020/09/16/world/covid-coronavirus.html" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer"><u>mobilized his base to protest masks</u></a>. The Trump Administration failed to devise a national plan, so our national plan has defaulted to hoping for the <a href="https://www.politico.com/news/2020/08/26/nation-of-miracles-pence-coronavirus-vaccine-rnc-402949" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer"><u>"miracle" of a vaccine</u></a>. And they are "something of a miracle," Pinker says, describing vaccines as "the most benevolent invention in the history of our species." In record-breaking time, three vaccines have arrived. But their impact will be weakened unless we achieve mass vaccination. As Brunson notes, "The technology isn't the fix; it's people taking the technology."</p><p> Significant challenges remain, including facilitating widespread access and supporting on-the-ground efforts to allay concerns and build trust with <a href="https://www.newyorker.com/news/daily-comment/african-american-resistance-to-the-covid-19-vaccine-reflects-a-broader-problem" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer"><u>specific populations with historic reasons for distrust</u></a>, says Brunson. Baum predicts continuing delays as well as deaths from other causes that will be linked to the vaccine. </p><p> Still, there's every reason for hope. The new administration "has its eyes wide open to these challenges. These are the kind of problems that are amenable to policy solutions if we have the will," Baum says. He forecasts widespread vaccination by late summer and a bounce back from the economic damage, a "Good News Story" that will bolster vaccine acceptance in the future. And Pinker reminds us that science, medicine, and public health have greatly extended our lives in the last few decades, a trend that can only continue if we're willing to roll up our sleeves. </p>
Imagine this scenario: you get an annoying cough and a bit of a fever. When you wake up the next morning you lose your sense of taste and smell. That sounds familiar, so you head to a doctor's office for a Covid test, which comes back positive.
Your next step? An anti-Covid nasal spray of course, a "trickster drug" that will clear the once-dangerous and deadly virus out of the body. The drug works by tricking the coronavirus with decoy receptors that appear to be just like those on the surface of our own cells. The virus latches onto the drug's molecules "thinking" it is breaking into human cells, but instead it flushes out of your system before it can cause any serious damage.
This may sounds like science fiction, but several research groups are already working on such trickster coronavirus drugs, with some candidates close to clinical trials and possibly even becoming available late this year. The teams began working on them when the pandemic arrived, and continued in lockdown.
Biochemist David Baker, pictured in his lab at the University of Washington.