Cryogenic freezing wants to be tech’s ‘holy grail’ in the fight against dying

Anyone that’s ever retrieved an out-of-date ready meal from the freezer will be familiar with concept of cryogenic freezing.

But there’s a big difference between thawing out some Chicken Kievs from February and bringing an actual human successfully out of hibernation.

The furthest we’ve got at the moment is freezing dead bodies in the hope that, one day, medical science is advanced enough to bring them back to life. Whenever we get to that point, we’ll defrost them and see what happens.

Around 350 people worldwide have consented to have their bodies frozen after death and the process is anything but straightforward.

To begin with, they must be legally declared dead for at least two minutes (interesting aside: ‘legally dead’ means a qualified authority has determined future care or resuscitation is not appropriate. It is different from – well – literal death. For example, a sailor lost at sea can be declared ‘legally dead’ even though he may still be alive, Cast Away-style) before they’re whisked off to the freezer. And, to avoid permanent organ damage, the body shouldn’t be left longer than fifteen minutes before the process begins.

Once that window of time is successfully navigated, a body is packed into ice and the blood is drained from it. Two chemical solutions are then injected into the body, the first to preserve the organs and the second to stop ice crystals forming in the organs and the tissue.

From there, the body is cooled to -130 degrees Celsius. Finally it’s lowered into a tank of liquid nitrogen with an even lower temperature of -196 degrees. It stays in the tank, awaiting the day it can be thawed out and reanimated by whatever technological marvel humans have created to literally reverse death.

It must be said that scientists are pretty sceptical of this idea. In fact, they reckon hell will freeze over long before it’s beneficial for you to do so.

‘Reanimation…is an abjectly false hope that is beyond the promise of technology and is certainly impossible with the frozen, dead tissue offered by the ‘cryonics’ industry,’ McGill University neuroscientist Michael Hendricks wrote in MIT Technology Review.

The reasoning behind this viewpoint is fairly simple. You may be able to get organic matter to stay preserved, but reintroducing life means stimulating the brain into generating and sending neurons between synapses. Historically: very difficult to do.

‘I would think it’s difficult to restore someone from cryogenics. Not impossible, but not very likely,’ says Dr. Joao Pedro de Magalhaes, a biologist at the University of Liverpool and co-ordinator of the UK Cryonics and Cryopreservation Research Network.

‘The amount of damage incurred during the procedure is quite substantial,’ he tells, before explaining that a portion of his work involves studying cryoprotectants (the most common of which is dimethylsulfoxide) at a cellular level. He tries to target molecules and pathways pharmalogically to reduce the toxicity of these cryoprotectants.

Which, to us, just sounds like a scientific way of saying he’s trying to make antifreeze for humans.

‘Bringing them back as the same person would be difficult as you would need to somehow inject new neurons.’

Despite the hesitancy, Dr. de Magalhaes says he can’t rule out the breakthroughs that are sure to come in the future.

‘If you went back 100 years ago and told everyone that in the future you would have all of human knowledge in a small device you carry around in your pocket, no-one would believe you,’ he tells us.

‘I would not underestimate future technological developments, that’s what history teaches.’

But even with the promise of as-yet-uninvented medical technology, trusting your remains to a private institution can get risky.

As the UK’s Human Tissue Authority puts it: ‘Early attempts at cryonics facilities have previously failed when the organisations went bankrupt.

‘Several facilities existed in the US starting in the 1960s, which often relied on funding from the living relatives of the cryopreserved, and could not maintain conditions when relatives were no longer willing or able to pay. As a result, all but one of the documented cryonic preservations prior to 1973 ended in failure, and the thawing out and disposal of the bodies.

‘Cryonics facilities aim to avoid bankruptcy by having the patient pay for cryonics before death, or through a life insurance policy. However, there are no solid estimates as to when successful resuscitation might be possible; there is always the risk that the cryonic preservation cannot be maintained.’

Despite the chequered history, a few companies are staying the course.

The most notable of which is the Michigan-based Cryonics Institute (CI) which was founded by a former paramedic called Dennis Kowalski. The company has 160 dead patients frozen in liquid nitrogen, with prices starting at $28,000 (£22,000).

There are additional costs (shipping the deceased, preparing legal documents, etc) but CI says it’s the most affordable choice there is.

‘Prices vary greatly. CI has by far the lowest prices of any cryonics organization,’ the company explains.

‘Our procedures are deliberately cost-conscious, but they are based on experiments and professional evaluation, and in our judgment likely to give our patients the best chance possible for future recovery.’

The company can’t put a timeline on exactly when its patients will be able to be revived, but Kowalski believes rapidly advancing technology can’t be ignored.

‘It could be in as little as ten years,’ he told the Daily Star. ‘Or it could be longer. But definitely in 100 years we will have brought someone back.’

The oldest patient the company currently holds in cryopreservation is Dr. James Bedford, who was cryopreserved in 1967 and is being stored by a rival company, the Alcor Life Extension Foundation.

The team at CI hold him up as a continual example of the merits of cryopreservation.

‘He has survived the Cold War, the Vietnam War, the Gulf War, Watergate, the collapse of the Soviet Union and the 9/11 attacks — which is more than many of his contemporaries can say,’ the company explains.

‘The world is (relatively) stable at the moment, global world war doesn’t seem likely, and the economy is relatively stable.

‘We can’t guarantee the future. But we can and do guarantee this: that at CI we will give our very best efforts to see our member patients are restored to life and good health. The life of every director and officer and member of CI depends on those same efforts.’

Even putting aside the dubious possibility of bringing entire human beings back from a deep freeze, the technology and the research attached to it still has merit in a broader sense.

Being able to effectively put organic matter into artificial hibernation means that organs could be stockpiled for future transplant procedures. Or limbs lost through accidents or on the battlefield could be preserved for much longer than is currently possible.

‘There are different applications where this can be used,’ Dr de Magalhaes says. ‘Like space exploration or military action. Imagine being able to transport patients who have “died” at the scene back to the hospital to be resuscitated.

‘If we could successfully preserve organs in biostatis that would be a medical revolution. That would save lives.’

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