Dobson and Vinten-Johansen found that a single five-minute infusion of the drugs was all it took to stop the heart of an anaesthetised dog for an hour. It started beating again spontaneously, and appeared to work just as well as before.
What's more, the heart was kept at body temperature, whereas in open heart surgery the body is usually cooled to help prevent damage. "The injection seemed to put the heart in a state of suspended animation, something you'd never see with potassium,"says Vinten-Johansen. But even if the technique is adopted by surgeons, it will not prevent all the side effects of open-heart surgery.
The heart-lung machines used while the heart is stopped cause a variety of problems, such as damaging blood cells. In some cases, surgeons now use" off-pump" surgery, in which the heart is kept beating but a small area is mechanically immobilised. But this is not yet suitable for most operations.
Author: Rachel Nowak, Melbourne
New Scientist issue: 20 September 2003
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