X-Message-Number: 15136
Date: Tue, 19 Dec 2000 21:12:00 +0100
Subject: Gene research scientists close to human hibernation breakthrough

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Forwarded-by: Nev Dull <>
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Gene research scientists close to human hibernation breakthrough

By Jonathan Thompson

3 December 2000

If you find winter too much of a struggle, hang on a while. Human
hibernation is on the way. The concept of people being able to drop
out of the year's gloomiest season is no longer the stuff of
science-fiction fantasy. In America, the US Army is funding research
into the subject, and scientists from Minnesota to Moscow are
looking at its practicality.

On Friday, a professor at the University of Marburg, Germany,
specialising in animal physiology, reported a key breakthrough.
"There is no real reason to say that humans are so different from
other mammals that they are unable to enter hibernation," Gerhard
Heldmaier said last night.

Professor Heldmaier is chairman of the International Hibernation
Society and his discovery was of two genes which are believed to
trigger hibernation. The finding of the genes, which are involved
in controlling, or "switching" enzymes to equip the body for
hibernation by allowing it to burn fat rather than carbohydrates,
is the latest in a series of discoveries about human hibernation.
"For many years we have been fiddling around, trying to find a
handle or a switch to turn on this metabolism," he said.  "Now,
for the first time, we have genes involved in this control. "

The first big breakthrough in human hibernation came just under 12
months ago. Matthew T Andrews, a biochemist at the University of
Minnesota, began identifying the first of these "switching" genes,
named PL and PDK-4. Last night, speaking from his laboratory in
Minnesota, Professsor Andrews, said: "In the hibernation genes we
have discovered, there are similar genetic sequences with those of
humans. It is decades away, but ... short-term stasis would be
potentially possible after a lot more investigation on the
molecular-biological level."

Although the research suggests the possibility of our going under
the duvet in November and not emerging until spring, the most likely
application of the work would be space travel and medicine. The
two professors' discoveries have already led to huge interest
worldwide. The US Army, which has funded Professor Andrews' research,
is reportedly keen to investigate the potential of hibernation as
a means of moving wounded soldiers in a safe "stasis state" from
battlefield to surgery. Nasa, interested in human hibernation for
long-distance space travel, has sponsoredresearch on the subject
at leading US universities.

Space travel hibernation, said Professor Andrews, is still "pure
science fiction". But he added: "More realistically, one of the
first main benefits of this process could be organ preservation.
If you could put organs into long-term stasis, as does a hibernator,
you could preserve them for months. At the moment, body organs will
only keep for about three or four days. Hibernation could eventually
save lives."

At the International Hibernation Society's eleventh symposium in
August, held in the Austrian village of Jungholz, Kathrine Dausmann,
one of Professor Heldmaier's protgs, presented evidence of the
first-known hibernating primate, a Madagascan lemur. "The fact that
primates, our closest relatives, can hibernate, again revived the
speculation about the possibility of this process in humans," said
Professor Heldmaier. "This has the potential to be very useful for
human medicine. There are strange things you can achieve by the
state of your mind. We just have to discover more about the switch
which allows us to turn this hibernation on or off."

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