Can human bodies really be cryogenically frozen?

It’s a story that has all the makings of a good science-fiction thriller – intrigue, an explosive romantic breakdown and frozen-body snatching – only, it’s true. This week, a bitter corporate dispute between a former wife and husband in Moscow, Russia, descended into the absurd when the aggrieved former wife seized the frozen bodies and detached brains of people who had paid epic sums of money to be cryogenically frozen at the pair’s dedicated cryopreservation facility.

Police intercepted the icy cargo not long after the truck left the facility, but Valeria Udalova reportedly insists she’s the legitimate owner of the remains. The company, KrioRus, holds the remains of thirty people who have been cryopreserved, at a whopping cost of around $48,000 per body.

Cryopreservation: science fact or science fiction?

But can cryopreservation actually work? Peter Tsolakides, founder and director of Southern Cryonics, believes it could.

Southern Cryonics is Australia’s first and only cryogenics facility. When it becomes operational later this year, it will offer people the chance – at great cost – to preserve their bodies at -196°C, with the expectation that “future medical technology may be able to repair the accumulated damage of aging and disease at the molecular level, and restore the patient to health”.

According to Tsolakides, the company already has 32 members who will one day preserve their bodies with Southern Cryonics.

The process, according to Southern Cryonics’ website, goes something like this: after death has been legally declared, the body will be ‘stabilised’ to supply the brain with enough oxygen and blood to preserve minimal function. It will then be packed in ice and injected with heparin, an anticoagulant, to prevent blood clots. Water will then be removed from the cells of the body and replaced with a glycerol-based chemical called Cryoprotectant (or human antifreeze).

The body will then be cooled on dry ice until it reaches -130°C, at which point it will be placed into a container inside a larger metal tank, which will be filled with liquid nitrogen to keep the body at a temperature of around -196°C.

More reading: Will we ever bring frozen corpses back to life?

Sounds simple enough. But will it work?

“Cryopreservation of cellular material is very common,” says Gary Bryant, Associate Dean of Physics at RMIT, and an expert in cryobiology. “We’ve been able to preserve certain types of cells since the 1950s, in particular gametes, red blood cells, cancer cells.”

But, Bryant says, only certain types of cells can be preserved in this way.

“To cryopreserve cells, we actually have to add a toxic cryo-protectant,” he explains. “Typically, it’s a molecule called DMSO or another one called glycerol, and what these do is they get inside the cells and then when you cool them down, instead of ice forming they form a glass inside the cell.”

Ice crystals could damage the intricate structure of the cells. But the molecules scientists use instead are toxic, and most cells can’t survive the process.

So what about human bodies?

“We can’t yet cryopreserve even a very simple organ,” Bryant says. “So even the liver, which has one type of cell, we can’t preserve.

“Part of the issue is that this cryo-protectant needs to get into the whole organ, into the cells, right in the middle – and by the time it’s done that, the toxicity has killed all the cells on the outside.”

Moreover, Bryant says that to preserve an entire human body you’d need to cater to the unique needs of each type of cell.

“Every cell is different. For example, with red blood cells you’ve basically got to plunge it straight into liquid nitrogen for it to survive, whereas with white blood cells you have to cool it really, really slowly to get the same effect.

“So, the idea of actually preserving a human or a whole creature is basically science fiction, because the requirements for each type of cell are so very different.”

Cryobiology: what can we do?

Bryant says there’s all sorts of exciting avenues for the use of cryobiology, even if preserving humans might not be one of them.

“The most exciting things in cryopreservation are the preservation of native species. We do a lot of that. So, we can freeze the genetic material (seeds, organelles, plants, tip tissues), [and] we can also cryopreserve various types of mammalian species’ genetic material.”

Another powerful use of cryobiology is in medicine.

“The main interest from a medical point of view is looking at certain types of tissue, and trying to move from the stage of preserving endothelial cells to preserving whole tissues,” Bryant says. “[The] liver is a perfect example because it’s really simple tissue and it can regrow to some extent. Cryopreservation of the heart muscle is something that might one day be possible, probably a long time from now, but it’s still possible because it’s a really simple organ.”

Cryopreservation may also one day aid in the treatment of common cancer. Bryant is personally investigating how to cryopreserve platelets, which are used in transfusions for people with cancer. Platelets only last around four or five days, so supplies have to be constantly replenished with donations, resulting in wastage.

If Bryant and his team can find a way to cryopreserve platelets, it could one day streamline this process and reduce waste.

So, after all this – can human bodies really be cryogenically frozen?

“Everybody’s entitled to their point of view,” says Tsolakides. “There’s nothing that says it’s 100% going to work, we tell that to everybody, but we believe there’s a reasonable probability.

“Scientists might say it’s impossible in the next 20, 30 years, I’ve got no problem with that because we’re looking at 200-year time frames.

“Let’s look at it this way, it’s better than the alternative. Doing this at least gives you some hope – there’s a chance to come back.”

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