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How to Hibernate (as a Human)

November 29, 2011

Brit Trogen

Mark Roth is on to something incredible. As a researcher at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center, he stumbled several years ago on the key to the futuristic technology that could one day take us to Mars or even immortality... suspended animation.

 

So we can keep sexy ladies in tubes!

 

Most familiar from movies like 2001, suspended animation is the process that allows animals to shut down their metabolisms to the point of appearing dead (with no heartbeat or breath, and low core body temperature) then later come back to life. For this reason it's sometimes referred to as induced hibernation. Think of all we could accomplish if we could flip our bodies off and on at a whim!

 

This process exists in nature through things like bacterial spores and sea monkeys (ever wonder how they stay alive in those little bags?) but in a few well-publicized cases it seems to have occurred in humans, too. A Norweigan skier found submerged in icy water for an hour; the Canadian toddler who wandered outside in freezing weather and was found two hours later; the Japanese mountain climber in 2006; in these and other cases people trapped in extreme cold were brought back to life after hours of lifelessness, without the neurological issues commonly found in those whose hearts have stopped beating.

 

Inspired by these cases, Roth set out to determine the biological switch that triggers this life-saving response (most people who go out in the cold simply die, after all), and after numerous trial-and-error experiments in mice, zebrafish and nematodes, has uncovered one possible candidate: hydrogen sulfide. Yes, that highly poisonous gas with the odor of rotting eggs may actually be useful! After exposure to low dosages of H2S, mice could be induced into an unnatural metabolic hibernation for up to six hours with no ill effects.

 

One possible explanation for this effect involves oxidative phosphorylation; the process cells use to produce ATP. Since H2S binds at the same point in the electron transport chain as oxygen, it throws a monkey wrench in the entire operation. In other words, when exposed to what appear to be anoxic conditions, the ETC shuts off completely and the animal simply rests. This is far less damaging than the disruptions that occur when oxygen is below optimal levels (but still present), as even a small amount of disrupted functioning results in the production of free radicals in the cell.

 

If perfected in humans (an injectible H2S is currently in phase I clinical trials), this treatment could potentially to save people from all manner of threats, from extreme blood loss to heart attacks and organ failure. Not to mention allowing us to send populations of hibernating individuals through space to colonize new planets... if the mood strikes. 

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