Mice have been placed in a state of near suspended animation, raising the possibility that hibernation could one day be induced in humans.
If so, it might be possible to put astronauts into hibernation-like states for long-haul space flights – as often depicted in science fiction films.
A US team from Seattle reports its findings in Science magazine.
In this case, suspended animation means the reversible cessation of all visible life processes in an organism.
The researchers from the University of Washington and the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center in Seattle put the mice in a chamber filled with air laced with 80 parts per million (ppm) of hydrogen sulphide (H2S) – the malodorous gas that gives rotten eggs their stink.
Hydrogen sulphide can be deadly in high concentrations. But it is also produced normally in humans and animals, and is believed to help regulate body temperature and metabolic activity.
In addition to its possible use in space travel, the ability to induce a hibernation-like state could have widespread uses in medicine.
Lead investigator Dr Mark Roth said this might ultimately lead to new ways of treating cancer, and preventing injury and death from insufficient blood supply to organs and tissues.
During hibernation, activity in the body’s cells slows to a near standstill, dramatically cutting the animal’s need for oxygen.
If humans could be freed from their dependence on oxygen, it could buy time for critically ill patients on organ-transplant lists and in operating rooms, said Dr Roth.
“Manipulating this molecular mechanism for clinical benefit potentially could revolutionise treatment for a host of human ills related to ischaemia (deficiency of the blood supply), or damage to living tissue from lack of oxygen,” he explained.
But he added that any procedure in a clinical setting would likely be administered via injection rather than by getting patients to inhale a gas.