Dr. Mark B. Roth, a cell biologist at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center.
It may sound like science fiction—a person apparently freezes to death but then comes back to life. This phenomenon has actually occurred in reality, and researchers may have found the key to explain how it is possible.
There have been well-documented examples of humans who appear frozen to death, without a heartbeat—but somehow are resuscitated with no long-term adverse health consequences.
Widely publicized cases include Canadian toddler Erica Nordby, who in the winter of 2001 wandered outside wearing only a diaper. Her heart had stopped beating for two hours and her body temperature had dropped to 61 degrees Fahrenheit before she was discovered and resuscitated.
Another incident that made the headlines involved a Japanese man, who in 2006 fell asleep on a snowy mountain and was found by rescuers 23 days later with a body temperature of 71 degrees Fahrenheit. Mitsutaka Uchikoshi was also resuscitated and made a full recovery.
Biologists have discovered a possible reason for this phenomenon, which could potentially bring significant health benefits.
In a laboratory, yeast and garden worms survived hypothermia, if they were first put into a state of suspended animation by anoxia, or extreme oxygen deprivation.
Under normal circumstances, both organisms cannot survive severe cold. But according to cell biologist Mark B. Roth, Ph.D., of the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center, 66 percent of the yeast and 97 percent of the garden worms survived when they were deprived of oxygen right before freezing. “We have found that extension of survival limits in the cold is possible if oxygen consumption is first diminished,” he said.
The relationship between low oxygen and low temperatures may one day lead to the development of improved techniques for extending the shelf life of human organs for transplantation. “Our experiments in yeast and nematodes suggest that organs may last longer outside the body if their oxygen consumption is first reduced before they are made cold,” said Roth.
Another key potential benefit from this discovery could also help patients in trauma situations, including victims of a heart attack or blood-loss injury, by reducing their need for oxygen until proper medical attention can be provided. Roth explains that these patients could easily be put in suspended animation by exposing them to agents such as hydrogen sulfide, which could lower metabolism as a means to “buy time.”
Roth’s research is far from over, but his findings have already generated great interest within the scientific community, and may yield significant advances in medicine someday.