ICBioethics Blog 

The Slippery Slope of Suspended Animation

Written by: Dr. Kathy Gennuso

In a hospital in Pittsburgh, an experimental trial is about to take place on patients near death without informed consent. Knife-wound or gunshot victims that meet specific criteria will be cooled down and placed in a state of suspended animation starting in a few days. The technology is in place; the appropriate practitioners are on call with pagers in hand; all that is lacking this limited rollout of the new procedure are the potential patients/trial participants.

A groundbreaking emergency technique will be tested out for the first time. This technique rapidly cools the body and stops almost all cellular activity by replacing the patient’s blood with a cold saline solution. Actually, the clinical trial team was concerned with calling it suspended animation because of the science fictionesque, Star Wars-like implications, so they call it emergency preservation and resuscitation. The research team believes that this procedure will buy enough time (possibly up to 2 hours) to prevent imminent brain death and implement the necessary emergency medical procedures needed to save the patient and repair damage. Then the patient can be “brought back to life” – essentially have blood reintroduced into his/her circulatory system and then be resuscitated if necessary–once structural problems have been fixed that would otherwise have been fatal.

This is the first time this treatment will be used on a human being. I recognize that this is quite significant to the medical community, and to all of us really, but is this not a slippery slope? ! Keep in mind this is the first time this treatment will be used on a human being. Keep in mind that this is a research study that is not requiring informed consent–one of the pillars of ethical research, a very substantial pillar at that, and for good reason. This study is considered exempt from informed consent by the FDA because of the circumstances of the participants: it will be done only to patients with expected fatal injuries for which there are no other alternative treatments. That may sound somewhat reasonable, but . . .  this research is only being overseen by the local hospital or by the health system’s IRB.

Am I being unduly nervous, maybe even a little over-reactive, or does this situation seem to exceed commonsense boundaries of trust and approval that should be placed (in the absence of outside accountability) on any healthcare system?

Mitch GennusoComment