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Is Cryopreservation -- the Freezing of Human Beings With Diseases to Revive Them When There's a Cure -- Actually Possible?

Members of the cryonics movement -- estimated at 1,000 strong and growing -- are taking perhaps the biggest gamble a person can take; that they will be frozen in liquid nitrogen immediately after their death and later be brought back to life.


Architect Steven Valentine's "Timeship" -- a "life extension research and cryopreservation" facility -- will house research laboratories, animal and plant DNA, and as many as 10,000 frozen people.

About 142 people currently have their body or head held in one of two cryonics storage facilities in the United States -- Alcor Life Extension Foundation in Scottsdale, Arizona, and the Cryonics Institute of Clinton Township, Michigan -- and many more have signed up. Among them are Baseball Hall of Famer Ted Williams and a handful of wealthy U.S. and foreign businessmen who have created "revival trusts" that would allow them to reclaim their fortunes hundreds or thousands of years down the road.

"This is going to be the century of immortality," says Stephen Valentine, an architect who has designed the Timeship -- a "life extension research and cryopreservation" facility that will house research laboratories, animal and plant DNA, and as many as 10,000 frozen people.

"Children being born today are probably going to live an average lifespan of 120 years. Their children, it is being predicted, will never die. There will be a time when people won't be able to comprehend the thought of not existing any more and just becoming fertilizer," Valentine says.

How Does Cryopreservation Work?

In cryopreservation, a body is put in a glycerin-based solution, cooled with dry ice, then held in a pool of liquid nitrogen until the body temperature reaches minus-320 degrees Fahrenheit (at which temperature all cell movement is stopped).

The idea is that people with incurable diseases could be frozen today, then rewarmed decades later when medicine has advanced and a cure is available.


A steel, liquid-nitrogen-filled capsule used for cryopreservation at the Alcor Life Extension Foundation in Scottsdale, Arizona.

Currently, only certain cells and tissues, such as sperm and embryos, can be frozen and successfully rewarmed. One of the biggest hurdles facing the technology is how to stop the formation of ice crystals, which damage cells.

New Research Suggests Cryopreservation IS Possible

Most cryonics centers require that interested parties register and pay in advance of their death, anywhere from $28,000 to $120,000. While some members opt to freeze their entire body, others preserve only their heads, with the idea that their consciousness will be transported into a "fresh" body.

While critics claim the centers are offering false hope and scamming people out of money, new research by University of Helsinki researcher Anatoli Bogdan, Ph.D. suggests that the entire human body could be cyropreserved without the formation of damaging ice crystals.

"Damage of the cells occurs due to the extra-cellular and intra-cellular ice formation, which leads to dehydration and separation into the ice and concentrated unfrozen solution. If we could, by slow cooling/warming, supercool and then warm the cells without the crystallization of water then the cells would be undamaged," Bogdan says.

His research looked into a form of water called "glassy water," or low-density amorphous ice (LDA). The glassy water, which is produced by slowly supercooling diluted aqueous droplets, melts into a highly viscous water (HVW), which Bogdan says could have important applications for cryonics:

"It may seem fantastic, but the fact that in aqueous solution, [the] water component can be slowly supercooled to the glassy state and warmed back without the crystallization implies that, in principle, if the suitable cyroprotectant is created, cells in plants and living matter could withstand a large supercooling and survive."

The Ethics of Immortality

The details of a world where no one dies, or at least one in which not dying is a possibility, raises an unforeseen number of legal and ethical questions. For instance, would someone who is pronounced dead and then later revived have to pay back their life insurance? And doesn't the prospect of cryopreservation already exclude those who are poor and unable to afford it?

At the very least, the notion of cryopreservation would alter the very definition of death.

"Death is just the point at current technology when the doctor gives up," said David Ettinger, whose father, Robert Ettinger, is said to have founded the cryonics movement. "It's a legal definition, not a medical one."

But while cryopreservation still remains, to most, something out of a science fiction novel, Valentine views it as a natural progression of humans' innate desire to live longer:

"Since the beginning of time we've done everything we can to make ourselves live longer. We've invented vaccines. We've cured diseases. What do we do that for? So people can live better and longer."

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Science Daily June 20, 2006

Guardian Unlimited: House of the Temporarily Dead

The Wall Street Journal Online January 21, 2006

ABC News: Would Freezing Ted Williams Really Work?

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