Cryopreservation or vitrifying yourself after death to be revived decades later may sound like science fiction. Not to Dr. Max More, who is convinced that sooner or later, we will be able to come back to life at our prime.
"I think of cryonics as an extension of emergency medicine," says Dr. More, an ambassador and president emeritus at the Alcor Life Extension Foundation. The Arizona-based company is one of a handful of organizations worldwide that conduct cryonics research.
To date, more than 200 patients have chosen cryopreservation at Alcor, even though the technology to revive them is only in the early stages of development. Nevertheless, Dr. More is hopeful and thinks it may take 50 to 150 years to bring patients back to life.
"Cryonics is jumping in when doctors don't know what else to do to save you. And we say, instead of a person being destroyed, let's put them in an unchanging state, press the pause button, and let more advanced medicine in the future tackle that problem," Dr. More said in an interview for Healthnews.
Vitrifying, not freezing
The process of cryopreservation begins with a person signing Cryopreservation Member agreements with Alcor. The cost can be covered by life insurance, with a required minimum of $200k for cryopreserving the whole body.
In the ideal case, Alcor receives an advanced warning of the serious death risk and sends a medical team to the dying patient's bedside.
The cryopreservation procedure starts within seconds after the cardiac arrest when the legal death of a patient is declared. The medical team then cool the patient with ice water and perform mechanical ventilations and compressions using a CPR device.
The patient is given various medications, such as anticoagulants to prevent blood from clotting, antacids, and membrane stabilizers, among others, to maintain the viability of the tissues. Only then is the patient transferred to Alcor, where their chest is opened surgically.
"Accessing the major blood vessels in the heart, we connect the patient's vascular system to a pump and chiller. The goal is to remove as much blood and intracellular fluid as we can to replace it with a cryoprotectant solution. You can think of the cryoprotectant as a medical-grade antifreeze," Dr. More says.
Patients are not actually frozen but vitrified. And that, he explains, makes a big difference because freezing causes ice crystals to form within an internal structure.
"They are very jagged and can puncture cells. When you vitrify by introducing a high concentration of the solution, rather than crystallizing, it gets more viscous and holds everything in place without doing any damage. That will make it much easier to repair them sometime in the future."
The procedure may take several hours and has to be done gradually because putting too high concentration of cryoprotectant early may be toxic. Eventually, the temperature drops to −320°F, and patients are stored in large cryogenic dewars, which can be compared to very large thermos flasks. The temperature in them is maintained by adding liquid nitrogen – no electricity is needed.
"At that temperature, there is no biological activity. So whether you're there for a day or 100 years or even more does not make a difference. It is much like being in a coma for a long time, except without metabolism," Dr. More says.
One common myth about preservation is that freezing destroys cells, he says. But cryopreservation is already used for in vitro fertilization (IVF) when a woman's eggs are frozen and later thawed. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 1 to 2 percent of all US births annually are via IVF.
"The problem is not that the cells are destroyed, but is that we do not know how to rewarm them fast enough without causing ice to reform," he explains.
Coming back at your prime
Dr. More says researchers "are not close at all" to developing the technology necessary to revive cryopreserved patients. And at this point, it is impossible to say how long it will take, but Dr. More thinks it could be 50 to 150 years.
Despite the uncertainty, increasing evidence suggests that memory is preserved quite well, while the electron micrograph studies of vitrified brain tissue show it is intact.
There are several possible scenarios of what revived people will look like. At Alcor, they hope patients will be repaired and revived in the same body.
"However, you wouldn't be coming back as a 90-year-old or 100-year-old. You would come back in a rejuvenated body, at your prime, so that it would be you, but you at your best."
At the moment, in the eyes of the law, cryopreserved people are dead. Dr. More says that by choosing cryopreservation, you are essentially donating yourself for a medical experiment; therefore, you are not considered to be a person.
He hopes that when cryopreservation is more widespread and better understood, cryopreserved people will have the same rights as people in a long-term coma.
Death as true irreversibility
Dr. More says that at Alcor, they avoid having informed consent problems, such as taking patients at the last minute, when they are desperate, or when other people are making decisions for them.
"We really want to know that they want to do this, and they thought about it carefully," he says.
According to Dr. More, who is a philosopher by education, many people confuse legal or clinical death with true death.
"If you define death as true irreversibility, then our patients are not really dead. Before 1960, we said you were dead if you stopped breathing and your heart stopped beating. But today, we don't do that — we have CPR defibrillation."
According to Dr. More, in the future, many people will look back and think that their deceased friends and relatives could have been given a chance. "By the time we can revive people, there will be an awful lot of people lost."
He is not convinced by the argument that cryopreservation contributes to the problem of overpopulation.
"People don't seem to realize that fertility rates have been dropping for decades and population growth has stopped in the Western world, and it is shrinking in many countries, including Japan, Russia, and Eastern Europe. So even if it was a problem, the real issue would be how many children you have, not how long you live," he says.
Dr. More believes that religious reasons should not stop from choosing cryopreservation the same way it does not stop from having cancer therapy.
"Most religions, such as Catholicism, prohibit suicide. And if you refuse the treatment that could extend your life, essentially, it's kind of a passive form of suicide," he says.
The article is the first part of the series about cryopreservation.