Miracle on Ice: The Chilling Promise of Cryogenics
This story originally appeared in print in the August issue of mental_floss magazine. Subscribe to our print edition here, and our iPad edition here.
It's impossible to resuscitate a frozen corpse. But that doesn't bother the small legion of cryonauts who are betting that an outlaw science will let them live forever.
The thirtysomething man sitting next to me in this hotel conference room has tousled brown hair, blocky glasses, and a thin goatee. He looks like an ordinary guy, an impression that’s confirmed when he turns and introduces himself.
“Hi! I’m John. I’m just an ordinary guy,” he says, nodding vigorously as if he’s trying to reassure me. “Just an ordinary guy,” he repeats, as if maybe he’s trying to reassure himself. “I’m not a paid-up member yet. You know. In the program.”
“The program” is why John and I and about 300 other people have packed into this auditorium at a resort outside Scottsdale, Arizona. We’re here to learn about the brave science of cryonics.
It’s the 40th anniversary of the Alcor Life Extension Foundation conference, and the company’s proposition is clear: to use “ultra-cold temperature to preserve human life with the intent of restoring good health when technology becomes available to do so.” They promise to accomplish this by freezing the bodies of recently deceased people in liquid nitrogen at a chilly -196° C. Then, if all goes according to plan, sometime in the next 1,000 years, these bold voyagers—known as “cryonauts”—will be reanimated to join the living once again.
At best, this sounds like weird science. At worst, it’s science fiction. I’m afraid that’s the verdict I’m leaning toward right now. In this niche market, there are only a handful of organizations currently freezing people and Alcor—by far the biggest—has frozen just 124 as of May 2013. (Yes, Ted Williams is one of them).
I tell John I’m not in the program either. I’m a little skeptical of the whole freezing-thawing-reanimating idea. John looks at me hard over the rims of his glasses. “I don’t like skeptics,” he says.
Indeed, this is not the sort of place that welcomes skeptics. Many in the crowd are here because they’ve already agreed to invest the $200,000 that will buy them a membership into the cryopreservation club when they die. Others have selected the more economical $70,000 option, which preserves the head only. Members typically buy into the program by signing over all or part of their life insurance to cover the costs: pickup, transportation, and—one hopes—very careful maintenance in Alcor’s storage facilities in Scottsdale. If John the ordinary guy doesn’t want to hear my doubts, I imagine those who have already made a sizable down payment on immortality will be even less open-minded.
Who are these people? It’s a varied group. Many are inspired, visionary thinkers. Some, like John, are seemingly typical people. More than a few, though, appear to be completely bonkers. To spend a day in a room full of cryonauts is to oscillate between astonished enthusiasm and incredulous cynicism in wild swings, punctuated by sudden and uncontrollable urges to laugh hysterically.
Yet I have to wonder: Maybe these 300 people know something the rest of us don’t. That’s what I’m here to figure out.
The first thing I learn is that freezing someone is very, very difficult. Basically, it does nasty things to our cells: As ice crystals form, they poke holes in our delicate cell membranes. Plus, as we all know, water expands as it solidifies. Have you ever put a can of beer in the freezer for a few minutes to chill it? And have you ever gotten distracted so that the “few minutes” became a few hours? Picture all the cells in a body exploding the same way and you’ll have some idea why this talk about freezing can be nerve-racking.
In short, our cells are not made for freezing, and they’re not good at it. When freezing happens, despite their objections, they die.
One of the first reports of successful cryopreservation was of chicken sperm in 1949. Since then we’ve learned how to freeze and thaw human sperm, pancreas cells, red blood cells, corneas, and heart valves. All these parts are very small. Small parts are where the most rigorous cryonics research has focused because there’s a lot of interest, and large federal grants, behind efforts to preserve pieces of people—for example, the corneas one might donate after death. Freezing entire human bodies, however, is infinitely more challenging, and the applications are harder to imagine. For this reason, major funders haven’t embraced studies yet, so many of the scientists who work in this field do so as a side job or, more commonly, they’ve gone out on their own and founded companies. (Not surprisingly, more than a few scientists at this conference are funded by Alcor). Basically, even if we can freeze chicken sperm, there’s still a big leap to freezing—and reanimating—a person.
The first cryonaut found out the hard way just how difficult freezing can be. After Dr. James Hiram Bedford died of renal cancer in a California nursing home at the age of 73 in 1967, he was stuffed into a sleeping bag packed with ice cubes and zipped up tight. The process back then was very much a DIY proposition, a far cry from the rapid response teams and liquid nitrogen that Alcor promises its members today. Storage, too, was not particularly well organized. Bedford’s body was moved five times before he ended up at Alcor in 1991. Since that (hopefully final) transition required some unpacking, someone decided to use the opportunity to take a peek at poor Mr. Bedford.
So how well did he do?
The good news is that once Alcor staff removed Bedford from his sleeping bag, they found ice cubes. If any thawing had taken place in the past quarter century, it hadn’t been severe or prolonged. It also meant that Bedford was surrounded by enough ice cubes for quite a few martinis.
The bad news, though, is more involved: “The skin on the upper thorax and neck,” Alcor’s report says, “appears discolored and erythematous from the mandible to approximately two centimeters above the areolas.” (This is the point at which the squeamish will want to skip ahead.) The report continues in the same dispassionate tone: “The nares are flattened out against the face, apparently as a result of being compressed by a slab of dry ice during initial freezing. Close examination of the skin on the chest over the pectoral area disclosed sinuous features that appeared to be fractures.” Apparently, the freezing process leads to cracks. You know, like in an ice cube.
Finally, buried in the latter half of the report is this note: “There is frozen blood issuing from the mouth and nose.” From the sound of it, Bedford won’t be jumping for joy when he wakes up. In fact—and I’m going out on a limb here—he doesn’t seem likely to wake at all.
Bedford’s story is a sobering cautionary tale, one you’d expect might make prospective cryonauts pause and think very, very hard about what they’re getting themselves into. But those around me at this conference are unaccountably optimistic, and the source of their hope is ... a frog.
The American wood frog (Rana sylvatica) has a neat trick: It can freeze for the winter. Actually, it vitrifies, creating its own glucose-based antifreeze that lets it cool below the freezing point, preventing ice crystals from forming. It stops breathing and its heart stops beating. It remains in this chilly state until spring arrives, when its little amphibian heart restarts.
Other animals, too, manage to survive very low temperatures without the sort of damage Mr. Bedford suffered. Take the oddly named ocean pout (Macrozoarces americanus), which secretes antifreeze proteins that may protect against the exigencies of freezing. Researchers have managed to use these proteins to preserve frozen rat hearts that, when thawed, started beating again.
Even better, one of the speakers at this conference, Dr. Greg Fahy, describes a study in which he removed a kidney from a rabbit, vitrified it, thawed it, and then reimplanted it. (One can only imagine what the rabbit thought about this procedure, which probably seemed rather unnecessary.) The rabbit, Fahy reports happily, lived.
Upon further research, I discovered this lucky rabbit lived for only nine additional days. Still, in rabbit years, that’s probably a couple of human months, which isn’t bad. The wild applause that greets Fahy’s lecture suggests that the crowd agrees.
Some other advances also have this roomful of cryonauts in raptures of geeky excitement. There’s the company, Suspended Animation Inc., that deploys cardiothoracic surgeons to prepare a recently deceased person for cryostasis. There are neat new techniques of cryopreservation, involving anticoagulation, bypass machines, and even liquid ventilation—all worthy of top-notch science fiction.
Today a frog, tomorrow a cryonaut. The crowd is optimistic.
On my way out the door, I meet up with John again and ask whether he’s impressed.
“I guess,” he says, sounding thoroughly unimpressed. He trails off. “But I had no idea it would be this complicated, you know?”
He’s not the only one. A few minutes later, I’m walking across the dark parking lot when I hear trudging footsteps behind me, then indistinct muttering. I turn around to see a man in his seventies, slightly hunched over and wrapped in an oversize tweed sport coat despite the warm Arizona night. He catches sight of me and gives a quick bob of his bald head, but he doesn’t slow his pace. I have to hurry to keep up.
I ask him what he thought of the conference.
“Crap. It’s all crap, isn’t it?”
I’m sensing this is a rhetorical question.
“Every year I come expecting to hear something new, but I never do.”
I protest mildly, noting the good news: the presentation on anticoagulation and liquid ventilation and, of course, Greg Fahy’s rabbit.
"Heard that last year,” he interrupts. “And the year before that. Pisses me off. You young guys, you don’t care. You’ve got time. But us? We’re getting old. We could kick off any minute.”
I don’t know what to say to that, and without another word, he climbs into a pickup truck with a large white life extension vitamins sign rigged to the back. The diesel starts up, and he roars off into the night.
He’s got a point, I suppose. But the science of life and death has a way of leaping forward in unexpected ways. Treatments that were science fiction 50 years ago are now either commonplace (like cardiac resuscitation) or at least plausible (like suspended animation). So even if the impatient skeptic takes his skepticism with him to the grave, those of us with a little more time (and $200,000) might get lucky.