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Driver survives two months at -30c

21st February 2012

The survival of Swedish motorist Peter Skyllberg, who was trapped inside his snowbound car for two months in temperatures of -30C,  has raised questions for scientists over a possible hibernation mechanism in humans and its potential use in medical treatments.

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Skyllberg were pulled from his car after being trapped in a huge snow drift with no food and scant oxygen. He had been able to drink melted snow.

The extreme cold would have put him in a deeply hypothermic state, but the deep cold and lack of oxygen may actually have saved his life, experts said.

Skyllberg, 44, was pulled from his car alive last week, amid growing speculation over the uses of deep-freezing methods to minimise damage from heart attacks and strokes, with some experts suggesting it may even provide a cure for certain cancers.

According to Ulf Segerberg, chief medical officer at Norrland’s University Hospital in Umea, the human body can tolerate a month of starvation if water is available.

Until recently, humans and other primates were believed not to have a hibernation mechanism. However, recent research carried out by Arizona University have shown surprising results that contradict this received medical wisdom.

According to Arizona researcher Roy Walford, human volunteers living in an artificial biosphere under lowered temperature and low-oxygen conditions with no food actually get better at retaining oxygen in their bloodstream.

The volunteers survived the challenging conditions, although their heart rate and breathing became sluggish.

Writing in the Journals of Gerontology, Walford likened the physiological changes to those observed in hibernating animals.

In 2006, Mitsutaka Uchikoshi suffered an extreme case of hypothermia after being stranded on a snowy mountain in Japan for 24 days. The 35-year-old office worker lost consciousness after falling down a snowy slope near Kobe city.

However, he survived because his body entered a state resembling hibernation in which his organs slowed down but his brain remained protected, according to doctors at the emergency unit where he was treated.

Uchikoshi’s core temperature fell by 15C from the normal 37C, but his brain, requiring less oxygen in such cold conditions, made a complete recovery.

Canadian toddler Erika Nordby had a similar experience after she was frozen solid during a Canadian winter in temperatures of -20C in 2001.

She was found lying in the snow wearing nothing but a nappy, and was pronounced clinically dead. Her heart had stopped beating for two hours, and yet she also survived, in spite of her toes being frozen together and her throat stopped up with ice.

However, her heart began to beat again after she was warmed up by the emergency room team at the hospital.

Her brain showed no lasting damage, because her body was put into a state of suspended animation.

Doctors are now researching whether such a state could be clinically valuable.

Mark Roth, of the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Centre in Seattle has developed a technique known as ‘hibernation on demand’ in mice, which radically slows their metabolisms. The mice can be left like this for as long as six hours without showing any ill effects.

Doctors believe that slowing the body down would give them longer to treat people with cellular damage, for example, and could also buy time in cases of severe blood loss, fever, heart attack and stroke.

 

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