Chilling the inert body of a heart attack victim isn't the first thought on doctors' minds, as they work to get the heart pumping again.
But evidence is mounting that cooler body temperatures improve the odds of survival. And an Orchard Park company is poised to benefit from the adoption of the chilling or "hypothermia" treatment.
"It's not very common at all right now," said Dr. Thomas Stewart, president of the medical device maker Gaymar Industries. "We're working like crazy to change that."
Gaymar's $5,000 "Medi-Therm" device is designed to quickly cool a patient using body-wrap blankets that circulate chilled water.
Only about 200 of the nation's 5,700 hospitals use hypothermia treatment for cardiac arrest, Gaymar estimates.
But recently, the idea has received attention in national news outlets, which recounted the unexpected recoveries of people who lacked a heartbeat. The recent stories in Newsweek and MSNBC follow the endorsement of the American Heart Association.
If your heart suddenly stops beating, your odds of survival are a slim 5 percent. If you do make it, the chances of suffering brain damage are high.
Studies have indicated that chilling the body mildly to about 90 degrees, from the normal 98, can halt the death of brain cells in comatose patients. It's thought that, after resuscitation, the resumption of blood flow sets off a cascade of harmful chemical reactions that kill brain cells -- a chain reaction that is blocked by lower temperatures.
The journal of the American Heart Association published an advisory statement endorsing hypothermia treatment in 2003. The AHA helped craft the advisory by a standards-setting body, the Advanced Life Support Task Force of the International Liaison Committee on Resuscitation.
Gaymar became interested in hypothermia technique in 2000, after studies in Texas showed that chilling the victims of head injuries helped them recover with less brain damage, Stewart said. The Medi-Therm device can reduce a patient's temperature to the target range within an hour.
Broader adoption of the treatment for cardiac arrest "would be a tremendous business opportunity," he said. An estimated 100,000 people die of cardiac arrest annually despite receiving emergency treatment.
The Medi-Therm device, which can warm patients as well as cool them, is already a significant product for Gaymar, whose annual sales total between $75 million and $100 million. Gaymar makes the devices at its 200-worker Orchard Park plant and headquarters. Single-use body wraps are made at its factory in Puerto Rico.
One competitor, Medivance Inc. in Colorado, also makes body-chilling systems. In addition, a different hypothermia treatment uses a cooling device inserted directly into blood vessels, resulting in faster but more invasive results, Stewart said.
"It's new," he said. "Medicine has built-in inertia -- it takes a while to change things."