Mark Roth is chasing immortality. His goal is to stave off death by putting desperately ill people in a state very close to it just long enough for them to get treatment that can save their lives.
You know, for example, how critical it is for someone who’s had a heart attack to get to the hospital quickly? Delay can starve the brain of oxygen, but not if biological functions are suspended quickly after the event. Stopping activity without stopping life is the puzzle he’s trying to solve. He believes he has the pieces, and now he’s trying to put them together.
Roth, 56, is a cell biologist and director of the Roth Lab at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center in Seattle. His work will be featured Wednesday in a segment of the “Making Stuff” series on PBS’ “NOVA” program — this one on making stuff colder. When I learned about that, I called Roth, and we talked about his suspended-animation project.
Science starts with observation, and over a period of years, Roth has noticed things that he put together as the basis for his research. Listening to him reminds me that scientific research thrives on the preservation of childhood wonder in an adult brain.
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In the 1990s, he said, “I was thinking about the idea that there are seeds and spores and Sea-Monkeys (brine shrimp) in the pet store. … They don’t really do anything … but you put them into water or you put them into the ground and then they do things.
“And then I started thinking about near-death experiences when people are not doing anything … they have the appearance of being dead, but they’re not.”
He read a newspaper story about two fishermen whose boat capsized in Alaskan waters. The Coast Guard found them, declared both dead and took them to port. Then one of the fishermen got up and left.
Roth started researching. “It turns out near-death experience is way more frequent than we think.” He read a study of treatment techniques used on people who were taken to hospitals in Switzerland, who appeared to be dead for three hours or more but came back to life. The Swiss slowly warmed the blood, then jump-started the patients’ hearts. About half were revived without neurological problems.
Thawing people is possible, but putting them into deep cold to deanimate them is another thing. Our bodies fight against freezing and can exhaust themselves in the process, but another observation presented a likely solution to that challenge.
Roth was watching a program on, yep, “NOVA.” A team entering a cave in Mexico had to wear special gear because the cave had a high concentration of hydrogen sulfide, which causes people to “deanimate really quickly,” he said. Hydrogen sulfide is toxic, but we make small amounts in our bodies, Roth said, so, “I thought, wow, I wonder if we’re using that to control the state of animation that we have.”
Getting the amount right requires a long, careful process, and that is what Roth is working on now. He’s successfully administered hydrogen sulfide to people who are healthy and is now testing hydrogen sulfide on people who’ve had health issues of the kinds that might be encountered in near-death situations. So far, he said, that has gone well. But his race toward that ultimate goal is a marathon.
Roth has been at it for a decade and was awarded a MacArthur Fellowship “genius grant” for his ongoing work in 2005. He had put mice in suspended animation and brought them back. He’s been praised for his creativity and for his tenacity, a necessary element of success in every endeavor, but especially useful in research science.
I asked him about the origin of that characteristic, and he said, “I don’t really know. I sort of left home when I was 7 and spent 10 years in an orphanage and went out into the world when I was 17, sort of as an independent person.”
He took up running early, and he ran for the University of Oregon. “I learned how to work hard.”
In research, he said, “most of the things you try will fail. I have a huge mountain of failures,” but he said there are two kinds of failure in research. Failures in which you head down a path before finding out it’s already been tried and found fruitless by someone else.
Then there’s the good failure in which, “It doesn’t work, but you realize there was no way for you to know that it wouldn’t have worked if you had not done it.”
You fail more if you reach far, but that is risky these days, he said. Scientists need research grants, and with money tight, especially federal-government money, the people who write checks lean toward the sure thing.
“A lot of research that gets done is done because there is a high probability of success,” Roth said, “but as the success probability goes up, the chance for revolutionary improvement is diminished.”
His research life has also been complicated by his interest in so many things. While many scientists stick with a single line of inquiry for a career, he’s changed several times. When he came to Seattle in 1989 he was studying gene expression, chromosome segregation and other life processes; now, “I’m looking to understand why people die and how to stop it.”
Roth lost a daughter, something he avoids talking about publicly, but I thought it important to ask about that. He said he was frustrated sitting by her bed at Seattle Children’s hospital for weeks, unable to save her. “It certainly had an effect,” he said, “creating in me a sense of urgency about making a difference, or at least trying to.”
He’d like to finish his work, but it might extend beyond his own life, which is why he speaks about it and takes time for online lectures and TV shows. He said he’s “hoping that the Internet, the TED talk (http://bit.ly/dgPBLo), the “NOVA” show, that they could encourage people who are in school now” to take up wherever he leaves off.
Whether he sees suspended animation in practice, his work and his inspiration have already made an immortal contribution to life.
Jerry Large’s column appears Monday and Thursday. Reach him at 206-464-3346 or firstname.lastname@example.org