Dr. Cheng Chi Lee, an associate professor of biochemistry and molecular biology at the University of Texas Medical School at Houston, noticed while researching circadian rhythms that a hibernation gene was switched on when certain animals were in complete darkness.
"We wanted to know what was the signaling mechanism that turned this thing on when we put the animal in constant darkness and through a long search we narrowed it down to a molecule that our body produces naturally."
That molecule, 5 Prime AMP, is a garbage product of metabolism, but in high enough doses, can overide enzymes in the body that regulate the molecule and the hibernation, or torpid state, it causes. When Dr. Lee injected lab mice with the molecule concoction, he was amazed at the unexpected result.
"The body temperature of the mouse dropped from 37 degrees (c) to almost close to room temperature and it was astounding. Then we realized the significance of this molecule because it was basically altering the metabolic state of the body."
With the ability to artifically lower body temperature using a method that closely mimics nature, instead of induced hypothermia that's often used after heart attacks or head injuries, Dr. Lee says precious cells that are destroyed because of a lack of oxygen could be saved instead.
"If you cool the cell down, the metabolic requirement would be less, therefore the requirement for oxygen consumption would be less and you can think about this clinically as a tool where you have major surgical procedure where we have all kinds of heart and lung machines to keep the body alive in those kinds of procedures. If you cool it down far enough, the metabolic need will be significantly reduced."
Dr. Lee says if the hibernation molecule could eventually be applied to humans, the uses could include inducing hibernation in the astronauts who will eventually go to Mars, a trip that could take about 8 months.
"If you can put a person in a state of suspended animation, you can think about all kinds of things you can do, not just astronauts shipping to Mars, but you can think about someone who may have a serious disease that needs to be controlled in some fashion or for example, a person who is in need of a transplant that is in a situation like that and awaiting an organ, we can put them in that state, maybe. I don't know. Those are things that leads to our own imagination down the road. I think what we need to do is solve the technology."
With plans to eventually test the molecule on pigs and then human if it proves safe, Dr. Lee says the procedure has great promise and could eventually become a valuable tool in the healing process.