Cryonics advocates have their bodies frozen in the hope that they'll be woken in the future. Graham Southorn asks if technology will ever be up to the job.
0n an industrial park northeast of Detroit is an anonymous-looking but wholly remarkable building. Owned by the Cryonics Institute, it is home to 47 individuals who are true believers in the ultimate triumph of technology: people who literally live in hope. Or rather, they're people who lived in hope. Now they're clinically dead, their bodies preserved in giant fibreglass cryostats and stored at -196°C in liquid nitrogen. It's only at such low temperatures that the bodies are protected from the biological activity that would cause them to decay. And there they will stay until the day comes, they hope, when future scientists revive them using some unimaginably advanced technology.
At least, the technology was largely unimaginable when the idea of cryonics burst onto the scientific scene in the early 1960s. Since then, advances in medicine, computing and electronics have whispered promises of future breakthroughs into the ears of these forwardlooking thinkers. Every now and then they gather to see how the future is shaping up, just as they did on 15 November 2002 at the Fifth Conference on Extreme Life Extension in California. There, experts met to discuss how biotechnology could slow ageing, how organs could be cloned to prolong human life, and how tiny robots could make their way around the human body to repair damaged cells. Putting on the conference was Alcor, the main rival to the Cryonics Institute when it comes to freezing people and preserving them for the future.
It was the president of the Cryonics Institute, Robert Ettinger. who first propelled the idea into the mainstream. Back in 1964 Ettinger was a physics teacher in Michigan and his book, The Prospect of Immortality, opened many peoples' eyes to the possibilities. Widely read at the time and since, it can now be downloaded for free from the Institute's website. It wasn't until 1976 that the Cryonics Institute was founded to put these ideas into practice and today it houses the bodies of 47 patients, as it calls them. Among them are Ettinger's mother, Rhea, and his first wife Elaine.
The Cryonics Institute and Alcor, which is based in Arizona, are ostensibly similar organisations. Both claim that they don't operate for a profit, or much of one anyway. Instead, the majority of their income is spent on the upkeep of their facilities, developing new clinical procedures, and forward-looking research. But their services and prices differ markedly. Alcor charges $120,000 (£75,000) to store a whole body, along with a signing-up fee and an annual subscription of $398 (£245). In comparison, the Cryonics Institute asks just $28,000 (£17,000) for whole-body suspension because, it says, it owns its premises rather than having to rent floor space.
Both companies are happy to freeze the four-legged friends of patients alongside them but Alcor is alone in preserving severed heads. Working on the theory that science will one day be able to regenerate all tissues except those in the brain, this $50,000 (£31,000) service will, they believe, preserve your essential character if not your bodily appearance.The Cryonics Institute, on the other hand, doesn't freeze heads on the grounds of good taste. As Ettinger says on its website: "It's nigh-on impossible to go to the family of someone who has just passed away, and explain that the head of their loved one is going to be cut off and frozen in a tank."
It's crucial for that visit to the family to happen as soon as possible after death to avoid damage that would otherwise leave little to preserve. In the US, the cryonics companies operate emergency response teams that fly out to a patient in the event of their sudden death. In the UK, a team of paramedically-trained volunteers coordinated by Cryonics Europe, an organisation linked to the Cryonics Institute, is on standby duty. Its job is to reach members at death's door in order to carry out the first stage of the freezing process.
That first stage involves removing the blood and replacing it with a solution containing glycerol. a cryoprotectant fluid. This acts like antifreeze to minimise the damage caused by freezing. Chrissie de Rivaz, chair of Cryonics Europe, explains that circulation and breathing must be artificially restored. "Once death is legally pronounced the patient has to be cooled down as quickly as possible. A machine keeps the heart going to circulate the cryoprotectant while the body is cooled down to dry ice temperature, -79°C. At that temperature the actual shipment to the States can be carried out, where it's cooled down to -196°C."
Freezing, though, is the easy part. There are around 100 patients kept in cold storage today, but there's a good reason why none have yet been revived. Quite simply, nobody knows how.
But for the advocates of cryonics, there are plenty of reasons to be optimistic, not least of which is the fact that nature has already managed a similar trick. In Canada, woodland frogs have evolved the ability to survive the country's harsh winters. Scientists have successfully placed the frogs in freezers, where they can detect no heartbeat, and thawed them out later. The frogs were none the worse for wear. Medicine, too, uses techniques of freezing. Some human tissues are frozen for use in later operations, and fertilised embryos are stored for female fertility treatment.
But scientists who work in the field of cryobiology - the study of body tissues at low temperature say that freezing individual cells is a far cry from preserving an entire human body. The process is only understood in a select few types of t cell, explains Professor John Armitage, a researcher in tissue biology and transplantation at the University of Bristol. "With test tube babies you are talking about a fertilised embryo that perhaps consists of just eight cells, and there are still some types of cell we can't freeze successfully."
The fact that nature got there first doesn't help the human body freezers. "The point is that these animals have evolved this way. Liquid nitrogen is -196°C but the Canadian frogs only encounter temperatures of around -10°C or -15°C, and even then not for extended periods. The frogs control exactly where ice forms in their bodies, so it preferentially forms in areas where it is not going to cause damage, such as in the skin and outer muscles rather than the major vital organs," he says.
At present the damage caused by the ice is the biggest barrier to successfully reviving a person in cold storage. "The way in which ice forms inside cells isn't well understood but it's not good if it does get in. And there are many other mechanisms of injury when you step up from individual cells to the complex structure of tissue. There have been successful transplant operations using cryopreserved cornea, but we know that those cells are very badly injured."
One hope of the cryonics camp is vitrification - a process that causes water to solidify without forming ice crystals. To achieve this, however, you not only have to freeze a body rapidly but use a cryoprotectant that's four times more concentrated than the one required for basic freezing. At these concentrations, the cryoprotectant is so toxic it simply poisons tissue. "People have vitrified a kidney, but on warming it up and removing the cryoprotectant there's been no evidence of function," says Armitage.
A bigger hope for those taking the big sleep is nanotechnology: the promise of tiny machines that will one day be able to manipulate individual atoms. Nanotechnology hit the headlines in 1986 with the publication of Engines of Creation by K Eric Drexler of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. At last years Life Extension conference, Drexler painted a rosy picture of a future in which nanoscale machines would enter cells to proof-read the DNA, remove waste materials, destroy pathogens (disease-causing micro organisms) and rebuild bodies and brains. If his vision ever comes true the precious few who have been preserved in liquid nitrogen could live to see another day.
The Prospect of Immortality www.cryonics.org/bookl.html
Cryonics Institute www.cryonics.org
Cryonics Europe www.cryonics-europe.org