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    The Beautiful Promise of Injectable Oxygen

    Written by

    Adam Clark Estes

    Image via JAS

    As recently as sixty years ago, if you stopped breathing, you were as good as dead. The advent of a sound technique for cardiopulmonary resuscitation in the 1950s changed all that, but even in the 21st century, even just few minutes without oxygen means all kinds of bad things, from brain damage to organ failure to the inevitable. And that's exactly what a team of Boston doctors are trying to avoid with a seemingly radical method of oxygen delivery. They're injecting those precious O2 molecules directly into patients' bloodstreams.

    This is not an entirely new technique. Last June, a team of researchers led by Harvard Medical School's John N. Kheir announced a new way for oxygen-deprived patients to breathe without breathing at all. With an intravenous injection of gas-filled microparticles, these doctors were able restore blood oxygen saturation to near-healthy levels in their patients. In the study published last summer in Science Translational Medicine those experimental patients were oxygen-starved rabbits, but the ultimate goal is to develop a treatment for humans. 

    It's important to explain that this innovative method does not negate the need for breathing. Breathing is important, and you should continue to do it. For certain patients, however, the ability to provide a basic amount of oxygen, say, to stabilize trauma patients who are having breathing trouble on the way to the hospital, can truly mean the difference between life and death. For Kheir, the impetus to develop this method came after treating an infant patient with pneumonia whose lungs filled with blood. It look 25 minutes to pump out the blood, and while the patient survived that incident, she died a few days later as a result of oxygen deprivation.

    In the year since Kheir stunned the medical community with his injectable oxygen breakthrough, the concept has evolved. Researchers announced the latest iteration of injectable oxygen treatments just this week in Vancouver. There, doctors have experience great success with a new method of injecting an ozone-oxygen mixture into patients' backs to alleviate the pain from herniated discs and the resultant pinched nerves. While the treatment is not new, the Canadians have developed a new handheld device that's both less cumbersome and more effective. (See the illustration above.)

    But the technology doesn't stop there. Intravenous oxygen injections can keep you alive if you've stopped breathing, but other forms of oxygen deprivation can have more localized consequences. A lack of blood flow to the eyes, for instance, can lead to blindness before doctors even realize there's anything wrong. For this problem, we turn to nanotechnology. 

    Also this week, a team of Swiss doctors announced a new method for injecting what can only be described as microscopic oxygen-sniffing robots into the retinas of glaucoma patients to determine if and where the oxygen supply had been cut off. This greatly improves treatment time, lowering the likelihood of permanent damage to the patient's vision. Based on signals from the tiny oxy-bots, the solution actually glows and fades based on how much oxygen is present. The more oxygen, the faster it fades.

    This is surely only the beginning. If the Harvard team's research for intravenous oxygen injections goes as planned, the applications will venture far beyond saving lives. Injectable oxygen could help clandestine divers stay underwater longer and mountain climbers climb higher. (Obviously the military is interested in this technology.) Regular humans, meanwhile, will probably figure out a way to turn this into a gentleman's heroin. It could be like a more hardcore version of the oxygen bar craze from the 90s. Much more hardcore.

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