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Cryopreservation: What’s all the fuss about?

by Kristian Birch-Hurst Published on 14th Dec 2015

by Kristian Birch-Hurst Published on 14th December 2015

In January this year, a two year old girl in Thailand sadly lost her battle with an incurable brain tumour. A tragically premature death of course, but also an arguably unremarkable one. With around 8.2 million cancer deaths worldwide per year, what exactly made this particular case so special? The answer lies in cryonics.

The infant, known as Einz, made headlines all over the world after becoming the youngest human to be cryogenically frozen, a procedure that was carried out in line with her  parents wishes.

Similarly, in 2013 there was also the highly publicised case of 23 year old Kim Suozzi, a terminally ill cancer sufferer who, despite the religious views of her parents, managed to raise enough money via a Reddit campaign to undergo the preserving post-death op.

While these ideas on the surface may just seem like desperate attempts to cling onto hope, more and more of the population - since the early 1970’s - have been signing up to be cryogenically frozen, and the methods behind such procedures have been growing in complexity, popularity and legitimacy year on year.

So what’s all the fuss about, how exactly is this fascinating fast track to a new life in the future carried out today?

It all starts with a Watch List

While there are several non-profit organisations like “The Cryonics Institute” & “KryOrus” currently practicing and researching in the field of cryonics, currently at the forefront is the Arizona based “Alcor Life Extension Foundation”.

Members within Alcor are constantly monitored for medical anomalies. When a patient’s health seems to be failing, they’re added to the companies ‘Watch List’. Then at the point of near certain death, a  professional standby team is sent to accompany the patient in their dying hours (although teams can often wait days, maybe even weeks for a patient to pass). This may seem over anticipated and disrespectful, but the minutes immediately after legal death are a vital timeframe to utilise.
   
As soon the body is no longer living, everything begins to deteriorate including that all important brain tissue; the longer the wait to begin preservation, the more likely the body and brain will sustain irreparable damage, even with assumed future medical marvels. The more in tact the brain remains, the easier it will be for future generations to regenerate the subject, maintaining as much of the patients former “soul” as possible in the process.

Once the patient is declared legally deceased, the team get to work.

The patient is transferred from the hospital bed, to a cooling bed, where the body is covered with an icy slurry.  A device called a “heart-lung resuscitator” is then used to ensure the blood starts moving throughout the body again. At this stage at least 16 different medications are administered, both commonplace and experimental, to protect the cells from deterioration - now surgery can begin.

In the next phase the body is preserved internally; the chest area is opened up to give access to the major blood vessels, these are then attached to the draining mechanism which is responsible for emptying the blood from the body and replacing it with a medical grade antifreeze solution (the same chemical liquid used for preservation during organ transplants). The main aim of this complex procedure is to ensure that ice crystals don’t form within and destroy body cells.

The final stage is a lengthy cooling process. Once the blood networks are completely filled with the antifreeze solution the team begin to steadily drop the temperature of the patient's body, about 1°C every hour. Then around two weeks later, they are stored in a specially modified freezer-come-stasis pod at around -196°C until their hypothetical revival in a technologically superior future.

Patients can also alternatively opt for neuropreservation; the procedure follows the same basic principle but is only used to protect the head and brain. This method is cheaper, and frees up additional storage space… but exactly how much does a one way ticket to the future cost?  

The Price of Immortality

Like most post-death arrangements, cryogenic freezing is certainly not a free service. Using Alcor as an example, patients will be required to spend around $770 in annual membership fees and a further $80,000 to $200,000 to actually preserve their head or body respectively.  
    
The money is gathered into a trust fund, which is then used to run the facilities and ensure that the patient’s body will continue to be preserved over the next few decades, maybe even centuries, until suitable cures and medical breakthroughs become readily available.

An obvious question that seems to present itself in light of these facts is this, “will this procedure only be financially available to the wealthy?”.

Speaking to Stephan Beauregard, official administrator of social networks and communications at Cryonics Institute, he explains that:

“Most people who make cryonics arrangements aren't rich. The vast majority are in fact middle-class people who place a greater than average importance on the possibility of a vastly extended lifespan, allocating their assets accordingly. A fear that the rich will be disproportionately benefitted should not be used as an excuse to stop the the progress of medical technology…”

“The more these technologies progress, the more they will be readily available to people of all socioeconomic levels. Cell phones were initially only available to the rich, yet are now owned by some of the poorest people in the world.”

Financial aspects are just the tip of the iceberg however, the field itself has often come under scrutiny from those within the scientific community and is not without its fair share of ethical quandaries.

A Gamble into the Future

On the surface the idea of cryogenic freezing, albeit slightly ‘out-there’, seems like a foolproof plan. Swerving the clutches of death, or at least prolonging the inevitable, with the ingenuity of hypothetical future science.But herein lies the fundamental problem.

As the full extent of the science needed to resurrect a frozen human body remains hidden from view, the technology cannot be tested, nor demonstrated, and therefore cannot  be proven. This is where many experts within and outside of the field of cryonics and cryobiology argue that it is to faith, and not science, that this practice belongs.

Furthermore on the controversial side of the spinning coin, much like euthanasia, it may be difficult to gauge how informed and sound of mind the potential patient may be or, like the case of the Einz child, they may be too under-intellectually developed to make a choice at all.

It’s difficult to say where the line should be drawn and how one would even begin to dictate who is and isn’t eligible for a potential new lease of life? Most importantly, there are no guarantees it will even work.

Looking Ahead

Despite cryonics’ obvious opposers, there are actually rather a lot of positive attitudes surrounding the subject, socially and academically speaking. Firstly, when considering the physical laws of nature and assuming our current predictions of what technology will be feasibly available to us in the next 50 - 100 years is accurate, the cryogenic freezing and re-animating of a correctly stored human body is fully bound within these laws - nothing needs to be altered or re-written.

Furthermore, although cryogenic freezing is a thoroughly underwritten topic in scientific academia, the literature that does directly address the subject is overwhelmingly positive. In Ralph C. Merkle’s respected paper “The Molecular Repair of the Brain” he boldly states:

"A literature search on cryonics along with personal inquiries has not produced a single technical paper on the subject that claims that cryonics is infeasible or even unlikely. On the other hand, technical papers and analyses of cryonics that speak favourably of its eventual success have been published. It is unreasonable, given the extant literature, to conclude that cryonics is unlikely to work. Such unsupported negative claims require further analysis and careful critical evaluation before they can be taken seriously."  

This growing trend of acceptance over dismissal can also be observed in the increased number of members that the cryonic companies are experiencing year after year.

As Mr. Beauregard from Cryonics Institute stated further:

“Cryonics is being viewed more and more positively than we could have imagined. The real good news is that more people are informed by this option, many then opt for this post legal death choice thereafter. At this time, just under 1% of people on the planet know that this procedure exists for them.”

That may seem like a painfully small statistic but with a world population currently pushing 7.2 billion, at even half a percent, that’s still around 35 million people.

The exponential growth of technology, medicine and philosophical thought over the last 100 years has been nothing short of staggering, the greatest age of human endeavour and scientific discovery out of all of our species’ recorded history. So, acknowledging the trends we’ve seen so far, is it really that foolish to place our trust in our not-too-distant descendants?