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Scientists to Test Extreme Hypothermia on Pittsburgh Trauma Patients

iStockphoto/Thinkstock(PITTSBURGH) -- It worked on Star Trek, now, researchers are putting a type of suspended animation to the test, investigating whether putting trauma patients into a deep chill might help save their lives.

To test this idea, doctors at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center will use an experimental technique on Pittsburgh residents who wind up in the trauma center.

The idea is that wounded patients who are bleeding to death can be saved by lowering their body temperature to about 50 degrees.  By inducing hypothermia in these patients, doctors hope to buy time to repair their wounds.

Dr. Samuel Tisherman, a critical care specialist at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center and the lead researcher of the study, said he hopes the procedure also will give trauma patients a chance to survive without extensive brain damage.

"If a patient is losing a lot of blood and the brain doesn't have oxygen, you can start to see damage after about four or five minutes," Tisherman said.  "If you can cool the brain down fast enough, you could buy 20 minutes, 40 minutes, maybe up to an hour."

Gunshot or stab wounds often cause so much bleeding that patients' hearts stop beating, bringing them into cardiac arrest.  Giving CPR to jumpstart the heart doesn't help because there is not enough blood for the heart to circulate to revive patients.

Operating to repair these wounds is difficult, since the excessive bleeding keeps trauma surgeons from clearly seeing what they're doing.  These patients' chances of survival hover at just 7 percent.

Using extreme hypothermia, doctors would try to slow down a patient's bleeding and put the body's blood-dependent systems on ice.  The deep-chilling process would begin by injecting an ice-cold solution into trauma patients in cardiac arrest.

After about 15 minutes, the patient should be chilled to about 50 degrees, and surgeons can get to work repairing bleeding tissues, ideally taking no more than an hour to finish.  Then patients would be gradually warmed back up again to a normal body temperature.

Tisherman calls the process Emergency Preservation and Resuscitation -- EPR instead of CPR.  The project is receiving funding from the Department of Defense.

Tisherman said the University of Pittsburgh trauma team will use deep-chilling procedure on only about 10 patients initially.  If the treatment works, emergency physicians say it will be a big step forward in treating trauma patients.

Copyright 2011 ABC News Radio

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