The first Australian to undergo cryopreservation is now on ice. This scientist says he won’t come back (2024)

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By Angus Dalton

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It was a race against time.

Earlier this month, the body of a man who died in an inner-city Sydney hospital would become the first person to be cryopreserved in Australia. But first, he needed ice.

The first Australian to undergo cryopreservation is now on ice. This scientist says he won’t come back (1)

Cut to Philip Rhoades, facility manager of Southern Cryonics, who had snagged a couple of bags from a store on the way into the hospital via train.

“At the hospital bed, once the patient has been declared dead, we put a lot of ice on the person,” the facility’s director, Peter Tsolakides, tells me. “Every time we bring the temperature down a little bit more, we have more time.”

From the hospital’s cool room, the deceased man dubbed “Patient One” was transported to a Leichhardt funeral home where medical staff hooked up his body to an ECMO machine (normally used as an artificial heart and lungs for the severely ill), washed out his blood and perfused his body with what Tsolakides describes as biological-grade antifreeze.

After the eight- to 10-hour stabilisation process, staff placed Patient One’s body in an insulated coffin, smothered it in dry ice, and dispatched it in a hearse bound for Holbrook.

The NSW town, south-west of Canberra, hosts Australia’s first cryonics facility, which is zoned as a cemetery by the local council. Here the body went into a computer-controlled cooling chamber, which slowly brought it from minus 80 to minus 196 degrees, the temperature of liquid nitrogen.

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“You can’t do it in one go,” Tsolakides says. “Otherwise you get cracking, particularly in the brain.”

Finally, Patient One was lowered into a dewar, a cryostat that’s like a large vacuum flask filled with liquid nitrogen. There Patient One will remain until such time as science can thaw his body, heal whatever killed him and restore his life.

But some scientists say that time will never come.

Can we resurrect a cryopreserved body?

Tsolakides acknowledges the fundamental promise of cryonics may never eventuate. “We don’t make guarantees,” he says. After another 150 years or so of innovation in medicine, cloning, computing power and nanotechnology for cell repair, he puts the probability of people coming back to life at 5 per cent to 30 per cent.

“Don’t forget that’s a reasonable probability versus the alternative – I don’t think people who are in the ground or cremated have any probability at all.”

Professor Gary Bryant, an associate dean in physics who researches cryobiology at RMIT University, has a different take: “I think the chances are exactly the same.”

The first Australian to undergo cryopreservation is now on ice. This scientist says he won’t come back (2)

The fundamental flaw of cryonics is the idea you could bring people back from the dead, he says.

“That’s really the reason why it can never happen. As soon as you are dead, your brain and organs are deprived of oxygen and the individual cells begin to die.”

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Part of Bryant’s work is finding new cryoprotectants, the biological “antifreeze” pumped into Patient One that prevents ice crystals from destroying cells. The chemicals currently used, glycerol and dimethyl sulfoxide (DMSO), are toxic.

Infusing the body with these chemicals is more like embalming than preserving, Bryant says: “It makes the body look whole, but inside everything is destroyed.”

When these substances are used to freeze sperm, eggs or blood cells, the cryoprotectant has to be removed rapidly once the cell thaws or it will die. Such a manoeuvre on the scale of tissue, an organ or a body is not currently feasible.

Then there’s the issue of the body’s 200 different cell types, each requiring a different freezing technique. (It’s a bit like how you can happily freeze a bag of peas but defrosted lettuce turns to mush.)

Even whole human blood is too complex to cryopreserve. Red blood cells need to be snap-frozen in a few seconds. White blood cells, on the other hand, require more gradual cooling – do it too quickly and they will die. (Blood is removed during cryogenic preservation, but the complexities illustrate how difficult preserving the medley of tissues and cells within our bodies would be.)

Even if it were possible to cryopreserve each one of the body’s more than 200 cell types, you’d have to separate each kind of cell first.

The first Australian to undergo cryopreservation is now on ice. This scientist says he won’t come back (3)

A hell of a brain freeze

The most advanced thing cryobiologists can do now is freeze single layers of liver cells, Bryant says, because the liver is made up of just one type of simple cell.

As far as he is aware, you couldn’t do this with a brain or neurons, which are notoriously near impossible to preserve via freezing.

In saying that, the field is advancing. Earlier this month, Chinese scientists froze brain “organoids” (bundles of lab-grown brain matter) using a new blend of cryoprotectant chemicals. When they thawed the organoids, some continued growing.

The scientists did the same thing with three-millimetre cubes of brain tissue taken from a nine-month-old girl with epilepsy. After two weeks frozen, the thawed tissue maintained its structure and function.

The first Australian to undergo cryopreservation is now on ice. This scientist says he won’t come back (4)

Bryant says the study looks promising. But we still don’t know whether memory or other functions could ever be preserved after freezing. The folds of your brain might look intact, but are you really still there?

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“I mean, let’s face it, we don’t understand anything close to what the brain does yet. Probably the last frontier in physiological research is understanding how the brain actually works,” Bryant says.

“The idea you can freeze the whole cerebral cortex without any damage, and then we’re going to maintain memories and so on, is pretty fanciful.”

You could look at cryonics as an act of radical hope and faith in future scientific heroism. You could also view it as a glorified, frosty entombment with a $150,000 price tag.

Tsolakides says Southern Cryonics caters only to clients who’ve had a long-term interest in cryonics – at least 30 founding members have signed up for preservation at Holbrook – and is upfront about the low chances patients will get at a second shot at life.

Bryant wonders why anyone would want to wake up hundreds of years into the future with no loved ones. “Futurama shows there’s lots of problems with this,” he says.

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Suspended animation, where humans are put into stasis while still alive, has a slim chance of becoming reality within the next 500 years, Bryant reckons. “Whereas bringing back someone from the dead ... I think that’s always going to be science fiction.”

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The first Australian to undergo cryopreservation is now on ice. This scientist says he won’t come back (2024)

FAQs

Has anyone been revived from cryopreservation? ›

Cryonics procedures may begin within minutes of death, and use cryoprotectants to try to prevent ice formation during cryopreservation. It is, however, not possible for a corpse to be reanimated after undergoing vitrification, as this causes damage to the brain including its neural circuits.

Who was the first person to be frozen cryonics? ›

James Hiram Bedford (April 20, 1893 – January 12, 1967) was an American psychology professor at the University of California who wrote several books on occupational counseling. He is the first person whose body was cryopreserved after legal death, and remains preserved at the Alcor Life Extension Foundation.

Can you be cryogenically frozen in Australia? ›

There are only a handful of cryopreservation facilities across the globe – two in the United States, and one each in Russia, China, Australia and Switzerland. If the claims made on their websites and in the press are accurate, these facilities likely have no more than 600 patients in cryonic storage in total.

What is the origin of cryogenic freezing? ›

The history of cryogenics began with the cold treatments—or sub-zero—treatments of the past, which have been around for quite some time. There are stories of Swiss watchmakers burying newly made parts in snow, and it is well known that companies would “age” castings by putting them outside during the winter.

What is the success rate of cryogenics? ›

One of the 5,000 is Dr Anders Sandberg, a senior research fellow at Oxford University's Future of Humanity Institute. He is on the board of the Brain Preservation Foundation and has elected to have only his head preserved after death, even though he estimates a success rate of just 3%.

Will cryosleep ever be possible? ›

Nevertheless, cryotherapy, cryosleep, and cryogenics are here to stay. Perhaps the popularity of cryotherapy will fade as “the next big thing” comes, maybe we will never know whether cryopreservation works, but cryosleep will definitely develop further – as the most promising technology for interstellar travels.

Who is the youngest person in cryogenics? ›

Matheryin, or Einz as her family nicknamed her, developed a rare form of brain cancer just after her second birthday. She died on 8 January 2015, just before she turned three. But by then her parents, both medical engineers, had made a decision that they hope may give Einz another chance of life.

How many bodies are frozen at Alcor? ›

As of October 31, 2023, Alcor had 1,927 members, including 222 who have died and whose corpses have been subject to cryonic processes; 116 bodies had only their head preserved.

How many people are in CryoSleep? ›

Currently, there are about 500 people who have had themselves cryonically preserved in the world. There are 300 in cryosleep in the US, 50 people in Russia, around 100 in Europe, and more than 30 pets in Arizona.

How long can you stay cryogenically frozen? ›

There is no time limit to your cryopreservation. You will remain preserved until the day it is possible to revive you. Now that you have found the answer to your question, what's next?

What is the longest someone has been cryogenically frozen? ›

For over 55 years, he's rested in a metal tube: the first man in human history to be cryogenically frozen. The story is fraught with strangeness, complications and, depending on how you view cryogenics, misguided optimism or inspiring hopefulness. Bedford was born in 1893 in Pittsfield, Massachusetts.

How much does cryonics cost in Australia? ›

Australian firm Southern Cryonics announced last week that it had successfully frozen its first client at a reported cost of $170,000 (£88,400) in the hope of bringing him back to life.

Does cryosleep stop aging? ›

Cryosleep is "sleeping" or "hibernating" for long periods of time in a controlled environment. While cryosleeping, or "in cryo", a person does not age, does not dream, and does not need food or water. Technologies like cryosleep are licensed by groups like the RDA to keep humans alive and well for long periods of time.

What is cryo sleep? ›

Cryogenic sleep, also known as suspended animation and cryosleep, refers to a deep sleep at super low temperatures. By keeping the body at these temperatures, the metabolism is reduced to its lowest possible level.

Is cryogenics legal? ›

There are no laws which ban the practice outright but there may be legal difficulties for cryonics because most countries specify how a dead body must be disposed of – and exclude long-term storage of this kind.

What is the survival rate of cryopreservation? ›

The most common issue is the oocyte does not survive the cryopreservation process. The typical “survival rate” of oocytes after vitrification is about 85 - 90%, thus for every 10 oocytes that undergo vitrification, eight or nine will survive.

What is the recovery rate for cryopreservation? ›

The average retrieval rate and recovery rate of sperm cryopreserved using Cryopiece were 96.25% and 64.40%, respectively. For micro-straw, the average retrieval rate and recovery rate were 71.42% and 54.30%, respectively. For mini-straw, the average retrieval rate and recovery rate were 63.54% and 58.04%, respectively.

Is cryopreservation reversible? ›

Internal pressure builds up reducing ice crystal formation and therefore supporting reversible cryopreservation through vitrification of cells.

How successful is cryopreservation? ›

Embryo freezing doesn't pose risks to resulting pregnancies, such as congenital disabilities or health problems. In fact, outcomes research of frozen-thawed embryos show lower rates of preterm birth, low birth weight, growth restriction and perinatal mortality.

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