Recent advances within the realms of science never fail to impress us here at Endeavour Magazine. Over the past decade alone mankind has witnessed remarkable advances in the field of bio-research, ranging from the great strides forward that have been made in cloning technology, to our ever-increasing understanding of stem cell development. And yet for all the progress that has been made in recent years, there’s one area of research in particular which has grabbed recent headlines; cryonics.
Sounding more like an experiment from a science fiction movie than reality, cryonics is the low temperature preservation of people; think Han Solo in The Empire Strikes Back. Unlike the world of Star Wars, we do not yet possess the technology necessary to bring humans back from a cryopreserved state, but one day, sooner rather than later, we might, and that’s where the attraction lies.
The possibility of returning in a future generation has captured the imagination, with hundreds of willing participants already frozen and thousands more on the waiting list. Quite surprisingly, cryonics is nothing too recent. In fact, the first person to be cryopreserved was a Mr. James Bedford in 1967, not Walt Disney (contrary to popular belief).
So how does it all work? Well, cryogenics in layman’s terms is the study of matter at extremely low temperatures. In the case of cryopreservation, bodies are not frozen per se for the inconvenient reason that the ice crystals which form when cells are frozen irreparably damages their cellular structure. Instead, almost immediately after death, the body is injected with cryoprotectants which prevent the formation of ice. Ice aside, we are talking temperature’s in the region of -190°.
There are multiple facilities located around the world which offer the cryonics treatments, the most high-profile of which being the Alcor Life Extension Foundation in Arizona, and the Cryonics Institute in Michigan. But what does something like this cost? Well, at present prices vary greatly, depending on the cryofreezing package which is chosen, although anywhere between US$30,000-150,000 would be a representative figure – less than one might imagine, in other words.
Cryonics has repeatedly made the headlines in recent months, following an unprecedented case involving a 14-year-old terminally ill cancer patient, who asked that she be cryofrozen as her dying wish. Mr Justice Peter Jackson granted the girls request after her parents had also agreed, following the reading of a hand-written letter to the court by the patient which reduced many to tears:
“I have been asked to explain why I want this unusual thing done. I am only 14-years-old and I don’t want to die but I know I am going to die. I think being cryo-preserved gives me a chance to be cured and woken up – even in hundreds of years’ time. I don’t want to be buried underground. I want to live and live longer and I think that in the future they may find a cure for my cancer and wake me up. I want to have this chance. This is my wish”.
The problem with the treatment is not that in the future we will be incapable of curing diseases that today we cannot, but the actual process of unfreezing. And even if this can be done without inflicting physical harm, the treatment raises many ethical questions, ie. is it fair for the girl to come back into a world in the distant future, where her family and friends are no longer there? And then there are the quite valid concerns about what affect the cryofreezing process may have on the patient’s brain – what good will being revived a century from now be should the patient lose her memories, or even her mental faculties?
What we must remember, irrespective of the near-certainty that humans will one day be able to reverse the effects of cryopreservation in the near or distant future, is that the possibility of someday returning is somewhat comforting, especially to those who have been given very little hope in this life.