Three wild technologies about to change health care


When I was a child, I watched syndicated episodes of the original “Star Trek.” I was dazzled by the space travel, sure, but also the medical technology.

A handheld “tricorder” detected diseases, while an intramuscular injector (“hypospray”) could treat them. Sickbay “biobeds” came with real-time health monitors that looked futuristic at the time but seem primitive today.

Such visions inspired a lot of us kids to pursue science. Little did we know the real-life advances many of us would see in our lifetimes.

Artificial intelligence helping to spot disease, robots performing surgery, even video calls between doctor and patient – all these once sounded fantastical but now happen in clinical care.

Now, in the 23rd year of the 21st century, you might not believe wht we’ll be capable of next. Three especially wild examples are moving closer to clinical reality.

Human hibernation

Captain America, Han Solo, and “Star Trek” villain Khan – all were preserved at low temperatures and then revived, waking up alive and well months, decades, or centuries later. These are fictional examples, to be sure, but the science they’re rooted in is real.

Rare cases of accidental hypothermia prove that full recovery is possible even after the heart stops beating. The drop in body temperature slows metabolism and reduces the need for oxygen, stalling brain damage for an hour or more. (In one extreme case, a climber survived after almost 9 hours of efforts to revive him.)

Useful for a space traveler? Maybe not. But it’s potentially huge for someone with life-threatening injuries from a car accident or a gunshot wound.

That’s the thinking behind a breakthrough procedure that came after decades of research on pigs and dogs, now in a clinical trial. The idea: A person with massive blood loss whose heart has stopped is injected with an ice-cold fluid, cooling them from the inside, down to about 50° F.

Doctors already induce more modest hypothermia to protect the brain and other organs after cardiac arrest and during surgery on the aortic arch (the main artery carrying blood from the heart).

But this experimental procedure – called emergency preservation and resuscitation (EPR) – goes far beyond that, dramatically “decreasing the body’s need for oxygen and blood flow,” says Samuel Tisherman, MD, a trauma surgeon at the University of Maryland Medical Center and the trial’s lead researcher. This puts the patient in a state of suspended animation that “could buy time for surgeons to stop the bleeding and save more of these patients.”

The technique has been done on at least six patients, though none were reported to survive. The trial is expected to include 20 people by the time it wraps up in December, according to the listing on the U.S. clinical trials database. Though given the strict requirements for candidates (emergency trauma victims who are not likely to survive), one can’t exactly rely on a set schedule.

Still, the technology is promising. Someday we may even use it to keep patients in suspended animation for months or years, experts predict, helping astronauts through decades-long spaceflights, or stalling death in sick patients awaiting a cure.


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