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Science Backs Up Buck Rogers – Gas Can Create Suspended Animation

Buck Rogers – Gas Can Create Suspended Animation” width=”560″/>

Tired of waiting for the new Buck Rogers movie? One minute it’s on; the next it’s off. Forget about it. Soon, you can be Buck Rogers. Turns out, the preposterous plot device that started the hero on his journey (he falls into suspended animation after exposure to a gas leak at an abandoned mine and awakens unharmed 500 years in the future) isn’t so preposterous after all: Scientists now believe a poison gas could put humans into hyper-sleep.

The idea is the brainstorm of Mark Roth, a biologist looking to extend the life of patients in need of emergency care. His work suggests a radical new way of thinking about survival. He found he could keep fish embryos, fruit flies and even mice alive in a state of suspended animation by taking away their oxygen. There is a catch: if you deprive them of some oxygen, they suffer cell damage and die, but if you deprive them of almost all oxygen, Roth says, “You get a state of suspended animation and the creatures do not pass away.” In short, if you can’t get the oxygen you need, it’s better to have no oxygen at all. Though, don’t try telling that to an intrepid astronaut who’s lost his helmet in the vacuum of space.

To create an oxygen-free scenario, Roth uses the gas hydrogen sulfide to replace any available O2. It’s stinky and toxic but it gets the job done. (One wonders if Buck Rogers smelled rotten eggs right before he lost consciousness.) Using it on mice, Roth was able to slow their metabolism until the breathing rate was less than ten percent of normal. After six hours, when exposed to fresh air they returned to normal.

That’s not a long time when compared with 500 years, but remember Rogers never intended to “sleep” that long. Even in fiction, it’s better to keep your hyper-sleep limited, like Aliens‘s Ripley. Otherwise you might awaken and find the apes have taken over, or worse yet, as South Park‘s Cartman learned, that no one plays Wii any more.

Judging from pretty much every space movie ever made, you would think NASA would be the most excited about Roth’s research. After all, human hibernation means that astronauts could really go the distance. But in reality, it was DARPA that showed interest, hoping Roth’s work could save soldiers injured on the battlefield. Further tests suggest it would: Rats suffering from blood loss have a much greater chance of survival when they slow their metabolism using the gas. That’s bad news for any Draconian princesses out there hoping a simple smiting will quell any rebellions.

Now Roth and other scientists just have to figure out how to make it work on humans. Despite developing a way to get the gas into an injectable form (using sodium sulfide, which dissolves to become hydrogen sulfide in the blood), it hasn’t worked in larger animals. “To make this effective for humans may take a combination of sodium sulfide and additional agents,” says David Lefer, another researcher working with the gas. He could be right. In Buck Rogers in the 25th Century it was a combination of gases that did the trick. Also, it didn’t hurt that “his life support systems were frozen by temperatures beyond imagination.” Indeed, hypothermia is a great help in slowing body functions.

It’s not often we can say that today’s science is giving a campy scifi classic some credibility. Perhaps if Roth can revive those that appear to be clinically dead, Hollywood can bring Buck Rogers back to the big screen.

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