The purple prose of suspended animation
Esquire magazine features an article on scientist Mark Roth and his research into “suspended animation.” As the website title “The Mad Scientist Bringing Back the Dead…. Really” indicates, this is not supposed to be a detailed account of Ikaria’s recent advances in induction of depressed metabolism but a sensationalist piece on mad scientists. Although the piece states that “Ikaria’s first suspended-animation product” has “completed Phase 1 trials in Australia and Canada” and is “being tested on humans, to make sure it’s safe” it remains to be seen if this technology involves major advances in rapid induction of depressed metabolism in humans or offers just another treatment option for various hypoxic-ischemic conditions as the press release (pdf) seems to indicate.
The article misses a number of opportunities to set the record straight on the proper use of terminology and prevailing definitions of death. The ability to resuscitate an organism from circulatory arrest, depressed metabolism, or suspended animation implicates that the organism was not dead to start with. This is not just a matter of semantics. The phenomenon of death is surrounded by many cultural and religious taboos and the difference between saying that we can bring back the dead instead of observing that recent advances in science and medicine requires us to redefine our definition of death is not a trivial matter. Most religious people do not object to cardiopulmonary resuscitation or hypothermic circulatory arrest because they do not believe that a patient who is resuscitated in such medical procedures was (temporarily) dead. The word death should be reserved for a condition in which integrated biological function cannot be restored by either contemporary or future technological means.
Increasingly, the phrase “suspended animation” is thrown around to describe a number of distinct phenomena ranging from modest drops in metabolism to complete metabolic arrest. If the word is taken literally, however, only complete metabolic arrest constitutes real suspended animation. Such a state cannot be achieved in humans by the use of hydrogen sulfide (or its injectable derivatives) and requires either the use of extreme cold such as practiced through vitrification in cryonics or the use of advanced nanotechnology in warm biostasis.
Popular reports on recent developments in “suspended animation” do not carefully distinguish between the results obtained with hydrogen sulfide and carbon monoxide in C. elegans and mice and its applications in humans. Until more detailed information is available on the use of these substances in large animals or humans it should not be assumed that rapid pharmacological induction of depressed metabolism in humans is a clinical possibility.