Reanimated Chickens and Zombie Dogs

In praise of weird science at the edge of life

By | August 1, 2014

CURRENT, AUGUST 2014No one wants to die. We may say that we’ll go willingly when our time comes, but most of us won’t. Trust me on this. I’ve been a hospice doctor for 15 years, and I’ve seen the lengths that people go to buy a little more time.

That’s especially true when what is kicking us off the merry-go-round of life isn’t a chronic illness like cancer or dementia, but a heart that’s just decided to stop beating. It seems so simple. And so . . . fixable.

So fixable, in fact, that over the last 200 years, scientists have pushed relentlessly at life’s terminus, trying to find new ways to bring people back from the dead when their hearts stop. The result has been a lot of very weird science. Back in the 18th century, for instance, the Danish physician and veterinarian Peter Abildgaard used electricity to resuscitate chickens.

I set out a year ago to find out where those early experiments have taken us since that first chicken resurrection. And I wanted to find out where that science might lead us in the future. The choicest fruits of this labor made it into my new book, Shocked: Adventures in Bringing Back the Recently Dead.

I’ve discovered that today’s research is considerably stranger than reanimating poultry: it blurs the lines between real science and science fiction. Some innovations that seemed promising, solid, and well thought-out have turned out to be duds. And others that seemed bonkers at the time are saving lives today. But how do we tell the difference?

Try this quiz:
Which of these three innovations has legs, scientifically speaking?

  • A resuscitation method that brings “zombie dogs” back from the dead
  • A device that will save a cardiac arrest victim by freezing his nose
  • A drug that induces hibernation in mice

If you guessed zombie dogs as science fiction, I’m afraid you’re wrong. Researchers at the University of Pittsburgh’s Safar Center have actually chilled dogs to very cold temperatures to help them survive long periods of cardiac arrest. Alas, because those innovative experiments were carried out in Pittsburgh, the city made famous by The Night of the Living Dead, it was perhaps inevitable that the canine subjects were dubbed zombie dogs. But those experiments are very real, and have led to clinical trials that are designed to save patients who wouldn’t survive with conventional treatment.

Believe it or not, the nose-freezing device is also real. It’s called the “Rhinochill.” It works by perfusing the nasal cavity with perfluorocarbon, which evaporates, cooling the blood flowing through a highly vascular skull bone called the cribriform plate. And that, in turn, cools the brain, reducing its metabolism and allowing neurons to survive longer after a cardiac arrest.

The hibernation drug may sound plausible, and hydrogen sulfide was touted several years ago as a potentially life-saving intervention for cardiac arrest victims and soldiers wounded on the battlefield after it was reported to reduce metabolism in mice. But subsequent studies in pigs and sheep failed to impress, and researchers were forced to stop a trial in humans with coronary artery disease. (The good news is that there may be another candidate drug on the way: 5-AMP.)

This mix of successes and failures is confusing if you’re trying to write a book about resuscitation science. Those so-called zombie-dog experiments were some of the most interesting—and potentially life-saving—that I discovered. Yet the media treated them as little more than a punch line. Conversely, there was a lot of media hype about hydrogen sulfide, which proved to be a nonstarter.

Nevertheless, I’m optimistic. The fact that so much of the science in this field deserves to be called “weird” means that researchers are asking far-fetched questions. They’re working at the edges of what’s possible. And when there are a lot of scientists trying new things—and taking nosedives along the way—it’s a sure sign that we’re exploring new avenues and gathering insights into basic biology. Maybe some of this weird science will one day be able to bring us back from the dead. 

David Casarett, MD, MA, is a physician and professor at the University of Pennsylvania Perelman School of Medicine. Read an excerpt of  Shocked: Adventures in Bringing Back the Recently Dead.

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