Cancer could be tackled more effectively by putting patients into a torpor state similar to that of a hibernating bear, a scientist claims.
Tumour growth would slow right down or cease while healthy cells in the body become more resistant to radiation, says physicist Professor Marco Durante, from the Trento Institute in Italy.
As a result larger doses of cancer-killing radiotherapy could be administered in safety.
The radical idea follows years of research on hibernating animals, and anecdotal reports of people who have been plunged into deep freeze and survived.
During hibernation, a form of cold temperature deep sleep, body functions such as heart and respiration rate, metabolism and oxygen uptake all slow down.
At the molecular level, too, gene activity and protein synthesis are reduced to a crawling pace.
All these effects could have big implications for cancer treatment, Prof Durante, a highly respected expert in the field of radiobiology, believes.
Speaking at the American Association for the Advancement of Science annual meeting in Boston, he said: “If you can do it, you can take (advanced) cancers that are fourth stage.
“Around 50 per cent 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 (spreading tumours) in the body.
“You cannot treat all the metastasis – you cannot use surgery to 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.”
Currently it is not technically possible to hibernate a human in a safe and controlled way, but such a goal could be achieved within 10 years, Prof Durante believes.
Synthetic torpor has been induced in rats, which unlike mice do not hibernate naturally, by manipulating a specific part of the brain, he said.
He added: “Now it is understood how it works, I’m confident we will be able to develop drugs that can induce this torpor. Then we would lower body temperature to 13C-15C.
“We are aiming for at least one week. It gives us time to deliver all the treatments that are needed to make the person cancer-free.”
A normal body temperature is 37C.
There are reported cases of people experiencing much lower temperatures for significant periods of time without coming to harm.
Swedish radiologist Anna Bagenholm fell into a hole in ice where she remained for more than an hour while her body temperature fell to 13.7C, the lowest ever recorded in a living human.
Despite a slight amount of nerve injury she made a complete recovery and returned to work.
Another case involved Erika Nordby, a 13-month-old Canadian baby who toddled outside her house wearing only a nappy in sub-zero conditions. When she was found the temperature outside was minus 24C and she was considered clinically dead. She had no recordable heart beat.
After being placed under a warming blanket she returned to normal showing no signs of serious damage. Her doctor suggested that she may have been in a hibernation-like state.