Hutchinson Center researchers first to induce state of suspended animation in model vertebrate organism

hours post-fertilization or younger could survive without oxygen for 24 hours and resume normal development after re-exposure to standard levels of oxygen.

"We can't detect any abnormalities in these fish after they recover," Roth said. "They have grown to adulthood, mated and produced normal offspring."

Roth's next goal is to figure out the molecular pathways that permit this recovery and why some vertebrates can survive a lack of oxygen - or other forms of extreme stress - and why others can't. "In the case of heart disease, humans typically die of a failure to get enough oxygen to cells," he said. "Cells deprived of oxygen for too long, particularly brain cells, typically undergo apoptosis - a form of cell suicide. If that happens and you live, you suffer from brain damage."

Some humans, for unexplained reasons, do manage to survive extreme forms of stress, such as brutally cold temperatures for an extended amount of time, and manage to recover from a metabolic shutdown. "What makes some animals - and even some people, like the case of the frozen little girl in Canada - able to survive extreme stress? Wouldn't it be great to have some control over this process?"

While it may seem in the realm of science fiction right now, a potential application of this control would include helping people survive life-threatening injuries while in transit to a hospital emergency room. Bodies or organs held in a state of suspended animation could be repaired and suffer no long-term consequences from extreme stress such as oxygen deprivation.

Roth admits that it is hard to predict whether such strategies will work, but for now, he is caught up with trying to explain the mechanisms controlling this puzzling phenomenon.

"Understanding the mechanisms that control biological quiescence could have dramatic implications for medical care, as it could give us an ability to control life processes at the most basic, fundamental level," Roth said.


Contact: Kristen Woodward
Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center

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