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A new experiment: Chilling trauma patients

WASHINGTON -- Suspended animation may not be just for sci-fi movies anymore: Trauma surgeons soon will try plunging some critically injured people into a deep chill -- cooling their body temperatures as low as 50 degrees -- in hopes of saving their lives.

Many trauma patients have injuries that should be fixable but they bleed to death before doctors can patch them up. The new theory: Putting them into extreme hypothermia just might allow them to survive without brain damage for about an hour so surgeons can do their work.

In a high-stakes experiment funded by the Defense Department, the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center is preparing to test the strategy on a handful of trauma victims bleeding so badly from gunshots, stab wounds or similar injuries that their hearts stop beating. Today when that happens, a mere 7 percent of patients survive.

Get cold enough and "you do OK with no blood for a while," says lead researcher Dr. Samuel Tisherman, a University of Pittsburgh critical care specialist. "We think we can buy time. We think it's better than anything else we have at the moment, and could have a significant impact in saving a bunch of patients."

Tisherman calls the rescue attempt "emergency preservation and resuscitation," or EPR, instead of CPR. His team plans to begin testing it early next year in Pittsburgh and then expand the study to the University of Maryland in Baltimore.

If the dramatic approach works, it will spur some rethinking about that line between life and death, says Dr. Arthur Caplan, a University of Pennsylvania bioethicist who is watching the research.

But before the first candidates get chilled, the scientists face a hurdle: The law requires that patients consent to be part of medical experiments after they're told the pros and cons. That's impossible when the person is bleeding to death. There won't even be time to seek a relative's permission.

Starting today, the Pittsburgh team is beginning a campaign required by the Food and Drug Administration to educate people about the study,with signs on city buses, a YouTube video, a website and town hall meetings. Those worried about possible risks could sign a list saying they'd opt out if they ever were severely injured.

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