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22 February 2017

Low Temperature Hibernation Could Help Treat Terminal Cancer, New Study Claims

A Black Bear emerges from hibernation   - Img: Flickr 
Temperature can have a number of unusual effects on the body, some good, others downright disastrous. We’ve covered quite extensively the potential dangers of prolonged exposure to extreme cold, such as hypothermia, frostbite and various other forms of cold stress, but this time we delve into the decidedly more positive with news that hibernation, a form of deep sleep associated with reducing activity to promote survival at low temperatures, could help in the fight against cancer.

Taking inspiration from years of research into the behaviour of hibernating animals, Professor Marco Durante of the National Institute of Nuclear Physics claims that by inducing hibernation and allowing the body to enter a state or torpor, the toxic effects of radiology are lessened while tumour growth is stopped. This allows the use of higher doses without causing harm to the patient. He believes that this could allow doctors to treat patients currently considered terminal, in some cases maybe even curing them entirely.

Following successful trials on rats, the team are now eager to extend their testing to humans.

Prof Durante states, “Around 50% of cancer patients have advanced cancer, so it is a large number. We all have known someone affected this way. And there is nothing that we can do with them. They have multiple metastasis in the body.

“You cannot treat all the metastasis. You cannot use surgery everywhere to remove the cancer or do radiation in all the affected parts of the body, or you will kill the patients trying to destroy the cancer.

“But if you could put the patient into synthetic torpor you could stop the cancer growing. It gives you more time. You also increase radio resistance. So you can treat all the different metastases without killing the patient.

“You wake up the patients and they are cured. That is our ambition.”

It has been speculated before that extreme cold temperatures may help the body to survive in situations it otherwise would not. One such case is Anna BĂ„genholm, who took a bit of a tumble to say the least during a skiing trip in 1999. She fell head first into the icy waters of a frozen stream and remained trapped there for nearly 90 minutes. During this time her body temperature plummeted to a low of 13.7°C, which should have killed her. Bizarrely however, the same cold that should have killed her was in fact responsible for her survival, as it slowed down her body’s biological processes to such a point that Anna was able to survive in a somewhat dormant state despite the ordeal.

Scientists now believe that this unprecedented tale of survival is due to the body in a resting state being better able to repair DNA damage. They now aim to eventually use these discoveries to place cancer patients into an induced sleep at low temperatures, waking them up one week later somewhat cold but cancer free.

Addressing the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) at their annual meeting in Boston, Prof Durante said, “I am very confident that if you put enough effort in [it is feasible in humans]. We can currently cure around 50% of cancers. The problem is the other 50%.

“If this approach works, there will be many of these patients with multiple metastases who will have hope. It will be a really huge step ahead.”

Exciting as the news may be, some in the field are still urging caution. One such person is chief clinician for Cancer Research UK, Professor Peter Johnson. He states that, “The effects of a technique like induced hibernation on cancers are hard to predict: they might help or hinder the treatments we use. 

"We will need to see some careful experiments in laboratory models before we can say whether this would be safe or effective for people.”

Sam Bonson

Sam is an aspiring novelist with a passion for fantasy and crime thrillers. He is currently working as a content writer, journalist & editor in an attempt to expand his horizons.