The voyager space probe took a year to get to Saturn and four to get to Jupiter. If I’m planning a trip to those two planets, I jsut don’t have enough reading material (or video games and movies ) to keep me entertained for that long. But nothing makes a flight go faster than sleeping through it, right? So how about finding away to spend most of that in some kind of hibernation, instead of rereading the Sky Mall for the 10,000th time. This is probably why a recent episode of Eleventh Hour (last night was a rerun, so I’m talking about “Flesh” in this article) had our crime fighters chasing down a NASA-developed germ that put it’s victims into a state of hibernation (it also was sexually transmitted and flesh-eating, but more on that another time).
It turned out that the nearby NASA research facility was developing a version of the Streptoccucus bacteria that, when injected into a person, produced a ton of hydrogen sulfide, reducing the person’s breathing rate and core body temperature– essentially, hibernation. As it happens, hydrogen sulfide (familiar to which anyone who’s ever smelt a rotten egg), is considered one of the possible options for inducing hibernation in mammals.
In 2003, Mark Roth, of the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Institute, saw a documentary on spelunkers that discussed the danger of hydrogen sulfide: the gas is produced by volcanoes and deep-earth vents, and it can rapidly induce a coma. Moth imagined that breathing a mixture of hydrogen sulfide and other gases could cut off just the right amount of oxygen to the blood to induce suspended animation in mammals. He experimented by putting a mouse in a chamber with 80 ppm hydrogen sulfide, and the mouse entered a state of hibernation (the character of Jacob Hood demonstrates this effect on the show). His results were replicated in May by scientists at Massachusetts General Hospital. Unfortunately, a January paper in Pediatric Critical Care Medicine showed that there were problems getting the technique to work on larger mammal, like pigs. Instead of inducing a state of hibernation, the study found the gas actually acted as a stimulant.
But there’s always the vampiric alternative. In 2005, Dr. Patrick Kochanek drained dogs of about half their blood and replaced it with a cold saline solution. The process actually put the dogs into totally suspended animation. As reported in DISCOVER, the dogs had no heartbeat, no breathing, nothing. The dogs were left asleep for three hours before Kochanek pumped the saline out and the blood back in. Most of the dogs came back to life with no ill effects. A few dogs suffered from brain damage and lethargy, leading to charges of “zombie dogs”.
Following up on this research the next year, a scientist at Massachusetts General Hospital, Dr. Hasan Alam, was looking into ways to keep a critically injured patient alive while awaiting surgery. Alam actually drained a pig’s blood almost entirely before replacing it with a cold saline solution of nutrients. He left the pigs in this state of animation for two hours to approximate surgery, and then revived them. He’s tried his technique on 200 pigs and achieved a 90% success rate for revivals.
The way I figure it, putting humans into hibernation — even extreme hibernation — isn’t going to make it possible for a single person to traverse the light years between us and our stellar neighbors. It just takes too long, even at an extremely slowed metabolic rate. For that we’ll still need either a generation ship or straight up cryonics. But for shorter, but still tedious, journeys between planets, traveling in hibernation may be just the thing. Personally, I hope they’re able to improve on the hydrogen sulfide technique, rather than the cold-saline technique. I don’t think anyone likes the idea of traveling 100 million km to Mars with half their blood in the fridge.