An Italian physician discusses the medical issues in Passengers, the new blockbuster hit. If you’re a physician and would like to join the conversation, log in here.
Passengers is directed by Morten Tyldum and written by Jon Spaihts. It stars Jennifer Lawrence, Chris Pratt, Michael Sheen, Laurence Fishburne and Andy García. The film tells about two people who wake up 90 years too soon from an induced hibernation on board a spaceship bound for a new planet. Upon its release in the US, Passengers received mixed reviews from critics and has grossed $137 million, against its $110 million production budget.
The starship Avalon is transporting over 5,000 colonists to the planet Homestead II, a journey that takes 120 years. The colonists and the entire crew are in hibernation pods, but a malfunction awakens one passenger, mechanical engineer Jim Preston (Chris Pratt), 90 years early.
Suspended animation is the slowing or stopping of life processes by exogenous or endogenous means without termination. Breathing, heartbeat, and other involuntary functions may still occur, but they can only be detected by artificial means. Tiny organisms (e.g. embryos up to eight cells) can be cryogenically preserved and revived. Some have been kept in suspended animation for as long as 13 years.
Since the 1970s, induced hypothermia has been performed for some open-heart surgeries as an alternative to heart-lung machines. Hypothermia, however, provides only a limited amount of time in which to operate and there is a risk of tissue and brain damage for prolonged periods.
Placing astronauts in suspended animation has been proposed as one way for an individual to reach the end of an interstellar or intergalactic journey, avoiding the necessity for a gigantic generation ship; occasionally the two concepts have been combined, with generations of “caretakers” supervising a large population of frozen passengers.
There are many research projects currently investigating how to achieve “induced hibernation” in humans. This ability to hibernate humans would be useful for a number of reasons, such as saving the lives of seriously ill or injured people by temporarily putting them in a state of hibernation until treatment can be given.
Actual and anecdotal cases of suspected human hibernation or states similar to hibernation exist in the literature:
Anna Bågenholm, a Swedish radiologist who survived 40 minutes under ice in a frozen lake in state of cardiac arrest and survived with no brain damage in 1999.
Mitsutaka Uchikoshi, a Japanese man who survived the cold for 24 days in 2006 without food or water when he fell into a state similar to hibernation.
Paulie Hynek, who, at age 2, survived several hours of hypothermia-induced cardiac arrest and whose body temperature reached 64 °F (18 °C).
John Smith, a 14-year-old boy who survived 15 minutes under ice in a frozen lake before paramedics arrived to pull him onto dry land and saved him.
Experiments on sedated sheep and partially ventilated anesthetized pigs have been unsuccessful, suggesting that application to large mammals may not be feasible. In any case, long term suspended animation has not been attempted.
Human beings are unable to survive suspended animation at cryogenic (extremely cold) temperatures naturally. The limits of current technology are also insufficient to prevent loss of cellular viability. Cryonics operates under a fundamentally distinct paradigm from suspended animation in that it depends on future technology as part of its premise for working.
P.S. On Nov 18, 2016 a 14-year-old UK girl who said before dying of cancer that she wanted a chance to live longer has been allowed by the high court to have her body cryogenically frozen in the hope that she can be brought back to life at a later time. You can read about this story, if you wish, here. What do you think about this case?