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Alexander Reed/MEDILL

Argonne researchers engineer ultra-cool surgical Slurpee

by Alexander Reed
Dec 04, 2008

 Alexander Reed/MEDILL

 Ken Kasza, leader of Argonne’s ice slurry research team, and his colleague Yue Wu (at right) attach a catheter to the slurry production machine. This catheter is designed to deliver ice slurry directly to the heart in cases of cardiac arrest.

Alexander Reed/MEDILL

 Argonne researchers also intend to use ice slurries in emergency medicine. Kasza displays a device paramedics would use to deliver ice slurry to the lungs of heart attack patients. This form of “organ protective hypothermia” reduces the body’s demand for oxygen, thereby minimizing the chances of damage that would normally occur in heart attack victims.

Deep in a hangar that was once used to make nuclear fuel rods, scientists at Argonne National Laboratory are designing cutting-edge coolants for protecting critical organs during medical emergencies as well as planned surgeries.

Argonne engineer Ken Kasza and his team of researchers plan to seek FDA approval for the first human trials of medical-grade ice slurries. This ice substance somewhat resembles a 7-Eleven Slurpee, but can reportedly cool organs more quickly than any other existing method—something very useful in treating emergencies such as heart attacks.

In such cases, where blood stops flowing, the heart and brain can become damaged when they are cut off from oxygen normally carried by cells. Quickly cooling those areas, referred to as “organ protective hypothermia,” dramatically slows the rate at which cells asphyxiate, providing doctors with more time to save patients.

Some of the most widely used methods of cooling the body are external, involving cooling blankets and ice packs. “It may take 1 to 2 hours to cool deep in the body through external cooling,” said Ken Kasza, the lead slurry researcher. “We’re talking about needing to cool down in 2-8 minutes to the targeted protective temperature.” Kasza’s ice slurry can reportedly cool an organ to hypothermic levels of about 90 degrees Fahrenheit in a few minutes.

Argonne researchers designed the equipment for producing and delivering the ice slurry, which can be injected straight through the bloodstream or topically to organs such as the heart, lungs and kidneys as needed in order to reduce their temperatures.

The slurry itself, one version of which contains mostly saline, feels like velvet after it comes out of the Argonne-made production machine. In order to effectively deliver this high-quality, sterile coolant in the operating room, researchers say their next challenge is simplifying the blender controls and automating operation so that doctors can easily and quickly cool and protect different critical organs.

“I would say that there’s probably real potential here that could help cardiac surgery patients and could give us a longer operating time,” said Dr. John C. Alexander, head of cardiac surgery at NorthShore University HealthSystem. “There’s some genuine enthusiasm that this might be very useful.”