Suspended animation could lengthen storage time of human organs and extend transplantation to more people

2011 Annual Report

Suspended animation could lengthen storage time of human organs and extend transplantation to more people

Dr. Mark Roth

Dr. Mark Roth

In Dr. Mark Roth’s Hutchinson Center lab, organisms such as roundworms and yeast have been subjected to lethally cold temperatures and survived unharmed—after he first put them into a state of suspended animation.

But this is no mere lab exercise for Roth and his scientific team. He wants to save lives.

His technique of inducing suspended animation via oxygen deprivation and induced hypothermia may soon extend the shelf life of human organs for transplants, a development that could make transplantation an option for more people in need of replacement organs.

For several years, Roth has focused his research on finding lifesaving applications for suspended animation. Once the sole province of science fiction, it is now reality at the Hutchinson Center. In addition to aiding organ transplants, it also could buy time for patients in trauma situations, such as victims of heart attack or blood-loss injury, by reducing the need for oxygen until definitive medical care can be given.

Depriving yeast and worms of oxygen before putting them into a deep freeze helped answer several questions. Under normal conditions, 99 percent of these species die when exposed to temperatures just above freezing for 24 hours.

But if they’re first deprived of oxygen and thus enter a state of anoxia-induced suspended animation, 66 percent of the yeast cells and 97 percent of roundworm (nematode) embryos will survive. Once normal growth conditions are resumed—through rewarming and reintroduction of oxygen—the organisms will reanimate and go on to have normal lifespans.

“We have found that extension of survival limits in the cold is possible if oxygen consumption is first diminished,” Roth said. “Our experiments in yeast and nematodes suggest that organs may last longer outside the body if their oxygen consumption is first reduced before they are made cold.”