The children of the Enlightenment

June 21, 2011

About a year and a half ago, Sky News posted a story about a 21 year old Swiss Skier named Cedric Genoud being found alive after surviving for 17 hours in snow, after an avalanche. Genoud and the rescue team involved said that being found alive, was a “miracle”. The Herald Sun in Australia referred to Genoud as “Swiss miracle skier“. The word ‘miracle‘ to describe the story crops up all over the World. So it got me thinking, as an Atheist, I obviously find the notion of miracles absurd, and so how could a man survive in such hellish conditions for 17 hours without dying? It must be explainable, even though lazy journalism insists on sensationalising and promoting the simplistic idea of a ‘miracle’.

So I explored, until I came across one theory that reaffirmed my amazement at the possibilities of mankind. We do not need the premise of a God. Humanity is magnificently advanced, and the theory of what could have happened to Cedric Genoud and how we could replicate his experience for medical advancement is beyond brilliant. I will try to explain it the best I can.

In October 2006, the published a story following the findings of a group of scientists from Seattle, who had successfully managed to put mice into a state of suspended animation. All visible signs of life during the period of suspended animation are closed down, rather like a seed. The mice were then brought out of a state of suspended animation and were perfectly fine.

To achieve this, the scientists from the University of Washington and the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center in Seattle, placed the warm bloodied mice in a cell, but with an added measure of Hydrogen Sulfide (H2S) in its artificial atmosphere. An incredibly low dosage was required, as too much H2S is deadly. 50 to 100 parts per million can lead to loss of sight. One single breath of an atmosphere containing 1000 part H2S per million, will cause death. The 2006 Côte d’Ivoire toxic waste dump scandal which claimed the lives of 17 people, was attributed to dangerous levels of Hydrogen Sulfide in the dump. In short, too much is deadly. So with the mice, the researchers added 8 parts per million H2S. What they discovered was that the H2S, in the right dosage, actively seeks out and binds itself to oxygen receptors in the body of the mice. This effectively means that H2S acts as oxygen. When people are deprived of oxygen, a series of chemical reactions occur in the body, due to the fact that oxygen receptors have nothing to receive. So, with the H2S acting as oxygen for some receptors, it became possible to lower the parts per million of oxygen to near deadly levels. Breathing lowered to unnoticeable levels. The mice were all but dead. On a smaller level, researchers drained oxygen from fish cells and noted that whilst growth stopped entirely, the cells were still alive. When normal oxygen levels were resumed and the H2S taken away, growth picked up where it left, as if time had stopped. A cell can live but remain inactive indefinitely. To grow and progress, a cell needs oxygen in a process called oxidative phosphorylation. It is as if you are holding a small windmill, it needs wind to keep producing what it is made to produce, but if there is no wind, it doesn’t stop being able to produce, it just waits until the wind returns. Our cells are similar. So, with nothing left to produce when H2S is attached to the receptors, our cells and organs grind down to a halt, but do not stop.

How does this relate to the skier? Well, H2S is actually in all of us; it is thought that it regulates our body temperature. Around 50% of people who are frozen for over 3 hours and then brought back to normal body temperature survive. Freezing conditions may very well kill us, but if our body is shocked into over producing, or is exposed to higher levels of H2S it is likely that the cells in the body of the skier would be brought to a halt, until normal levels of oxygen and room temperature were resumed. As The leading scientist on H2S, Mark Roth has stated:

Our work in suspended animation derives from the fact that many animals exhibit what we call “metabolic flexibility,” the ability to dial down their respiration and heartbeat and, in effect, “turn themselves off” in response to physical or environmental stress.

With mice for example, Roth found that when exposed to 80ppm of H2S, the core body temperature of the mouse (remember, warm bloodied mammal) could be reduced by 11 degrees. Absolutely deadly at any other time. What if the skier had managed to produce more H2S or was exposed somehow to more H2S than normal? The 17 hours, for his body and the cells in it, would have felt like a split second.

This is beyond brilliant. There is usually a window of opportunity between someone suffering a near fatal injury, or stroke, or heart attack, and fully healing. If, for example, the brain is deprived of oxygen for too long, there will be serious damage. But, if a treatment could be devised, that prolongs that window of opportunity by decreasing the amount of oxygen needed using H2S, organs could survive serious trauma, a stroke could potentially mean no serious outcome, lives could be both saved and drastically prolonged. If a man is hit by a car for example, and may not make it to the hospital, it would be possible using H2S treatment, to essentially suspend his life for the journey to the hospital, work on him, and then bring him back, and his body will not realise that so much time has passed. The possibilities really are fascinating.

To call such a spectacular feat of human understanding and endeavor a “miracle” does our species an unforgivable injustice. Sky News would be doing the World a great favour if it worked to propagate advancements in science and medicine and spread the message to humanity, that we are far greater and more powerful than the debilitating idea of God.

Humanity does not need miracles.