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Rotten Eggs, Flatulence, and Suspended Animation

We recently received the following email about suspended animation:

A Big hello to SGU from Darwin Australia, I am writing in to seek your opinion on something I came across on a paranormal and believers pod cast…As painful as it is to listen to them, in the interest of being a good skeptic I find it compulsory to get both sides of the story. They mentioned a possible development in mans quest to cheat death itself. They reported that there could be a way to shut down your body and organs and reanimate them without any ill effects. Of all things, by using poison gas.

A biologist named Mark Roth is reported to have been experimenting with a gas (hydrogen sulphide) that when inhaled replaces the oxygen in the body…I would love to know what you guys think. Keep up the great work, hope you make it to Australia soon.

Keith S.

PS. I smell a zombie plague on the horizon….

I like the way you think Keith, thanks for the question

I remember reading about this a few years ago. I recall being very intrigued with the experimental results at that time. Thanks for giving me the impetus to research the latest news on this.

It does sound a little bizarre I grant you…..inhaling a poison gas as a medical intervention.

hydrogensulfide

The fact that a poison gas could have medical benefits should not be surprising. As Dr. Steve is fond of saying, “toxicity is all about dose”. Drink enough water and it becomes toxic. My favorite example is rat poison. Obviously it kills rats and it could kill people as well; but lower the dose enough and it becomes coumadin, the blood thinner given to literally tens of thousands a people every day.

The poison in question here is Hydrogen Sulfide; best known perhaps for its contribution to that uber-nasty rotten egg smell everyone encounters once in a while and also to flatulence which everyone on the planet with a metabolism knows intimately.

There’s much more to Hydrogen Sulfide than old eggs and farts though. It’s a colorless, flammable gas that exists naturally in the environment such as in volcanoes, hot springs, and in natural gas. It also exists in and has a functional role in the bodies of all mammals. In high enough doses it is considered a broad spectrum poison however, meaning it can poison several different systems at once in the body. Just one ounce can kill dozens of people. A single breath can kill you in high enough concentrations (1000 ppm). It’s often compared hydrogen cyanide.

At this point in my narrative, I will introduce biologist Mark Roth who in 1995 went through a worst-case scenario for any parent, the loss of a child.

This unfathomable event didn’t cause a downward spiral of depression but instead inspired him to “go for broke” in his chosen field of study and tackle something big.

Using fish and flies, he showed that by removing oxygen from the cells, the animals did not die, but entered into a form of hibernation or even perhaps suspended animation.  You would think that removing oxygen obviously meant death, right? This experiment worked though because biology apparently reacts one way to decreased oxygen and another way to reaaaaallly decreased oxygen

When oxygen levels drop from the normal 21% to a measly 5%, we die, rats die, fish die, we all die. This is because a cascade of chemical reactions cause us to die. These reactions though require a little oxygen to happen. Bring the oxygen levels low enough, say to a tenth of a percent, and that deadly cascade can’t get started.

This is where Hydrogen Sulfide comes in. It prevents oxygen from binding, stopping cellular respiration and preventing the chemical reactions that directly cause tissue death.

DARPA (Defense Advanced Research Project Agency) noticed Roth’s work and gave him a quarter million dollars which he lost at the casino…..kidding…..he actually continued his experiments, this time with mice, and showed that lower concentrations could reduce breathing to 10 percent of normal. This of course the army would obviously be interested in if for no other reason than reducing the grim toll of battlefield trauma.

When it gets down to it, it’s all about time. Many deaths, especially war deaths, occur not because of outright kills but because of the time it takes a newly injured soldier to get to Dr Hawkeye Pierce at the local M.A.S.H. unit. Give the doctors more time and they will save lives that otherwise would have been lost. I like the analogy to heart surgery. For years we had the surgical techniques that could repair many types of heart damage. The problem was that once the heart was stopped, there were only a few minutes available to perform the surgery. Once heart/lung bypass technology was developed however, the window for intervention ballooned open and now more lives are saved every hour of the day because of it.

This latest advance earned Roth a spot on Ripley’s Believe it or Not and a MacArthur Genius Grant which then led to experimentation with larger animals like pigs. This, unfortunately, is where he hit his first real big road-block. He couldn’t get his pink porcine patients into any state resembling hibernation (or I assume, a state of greatly reduced respiration either). Most recently he started working on an injectable form of sodium sulfide which turns into Hydrogen Sulfide in the bloodstream. Human safety trials are happening now in Canada and Australia. Mice applications using these injections have shown some pretty amazing results. Giving a small does prior to inducing a heart attack results in an astounding 72% less heart damage although I’m not sure why they didn’t give the injection after the attack.

If these issues get worked out and Hydrogen Sulfide works in people the way it appears to in fish and mice then we’re in for nothing less than a revolution in emergency medicine. Many devastating traumas that spell certain death now will become merely emergency situations with a high survivability. Organ donation too could be greatly helped if the shelf-life for organs could be greatly extended. For surgical procedures, one need only look at the effectiveness of low temperature surgery to see what a benefit a slowed metabolism can be.

The big pink elephant in the room for me though is not just a slowed metabolism but the potential of inducing a form of hibernation in people or even, dare I say, indefinite suspended animation. This is what Roth’s experiments document in fish and mice but the details were kind of vague in the research material I came across.  What is actually going on with the tissue in this state? Is it just a greatly reduced metabolism similar to hibernation (or estivation) or something different that really deserves the capitalized moniker “Suspended Animation”?

suspendedanimation1

It doesn’t take much however for the sci-fi imagination in us all to envision the potential applications of such suspensions. Deep space travel with suspended people would save billions in the resources to launch the ship and keep them alive and entertained for months or years. Just make sure the HAL computer running the ship doesn’t get all paranoid, ok?. People with incurable diseases could simply slow time enough to wait out a cure whether it’s months or years. No cell damage due to cryonic freezing. No nanotech required to reanimate.  Here’s an idea: say your just bored and hate your family and friends. Well, just hibernate for a few decades and come back when they’re all dead.

That’s the ticket

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