Have you ever dreamt about being immortal? The desire of humankind to become eternal has been observed for centuries. Not only did the poets want to stay alive forever in their words hoping ‘not to die a whole’ but also scientists through their discoveries are remembered and passed over to the next generations. To what extend can science influence human eternity? Is it justifiable to use technology and scientific power to achieve ambitions that can potentially be harmful to humans?
Cryogenics is a technology designed to preserve and protect life. Alcor Life Extension Foundation in the USA used this idea to offer patients a hope to live longer even after death! The company with over 1100 members ensures that up to 15 minutes between the heartbeat stop and brain death opens an opportunity to restore blood circulation artificially and preserve brain action even though a patient is declared to be dead. Sounds impossible?
The patient is placed in a water bath having blood circulation and breathing restored in a heart-lung resuscitator. Given the patient is legally dead, the company can use methods that are not accepted by conventional medicine. A combination of compression-decompression CPS with instant cooling is crucial for brain protection in cardiac arrest. The deceased is given a mixture of intravenous free radicals inhibitors, pH buffers and anaesthetics to keep blood pressure at constant level.
The surgeon then washes out the remaining blood. Cryoprotectant, a substance that prevents damage to cells during freezing, is gradually introduced. The brain is monitored through the holes in the skull. At the end of perfusion the cryoprotectant is present in tissues at the concentration of 60%. Next, the patient is cooled using nitrogen gas to -125˚C as soon as possible to prevent ice formation. Vitrification is a process that does not involve production of ice but rather water being replaced with protective chemicals. It takes only 3 hours to have the whole body frozen. Later it is cooled down to -196˚C for two weeks.
Alcor suggests that in the near future it will be possible to fully recover patients after cardiac arrests. Limitations of this technique include high cost and the need to register beforehand. To have your body cryoprotected you have to pay $200 000 and then $800 000 for neuropreservation. Although this technique is used today to preserve bodies, Alcor implies it has the potential to become reversible.
Having the process of Alcor considered, let’s move to the ethical consideration. Given the low probability of success, the technique does not seem to be good enough yet to encourage people to have their bodies vitrified as of yet. One of the reasons is low awareness about the power of cryogenics and misinterpretation of the procedure. Alcor states that cryogenics is not a belief that the dead can be revived but rather it is believed that the patient is not dead until the brain function is lost. This slight difference, although clear and understandable, can be confused and misinterpreted, discouraging Americans from taking part in it.
One example of cryogenics includes a 14- year old British schoolgirl that wished to be frozen after she died from cancer. She did not want to accept the death coming and therefore she expressed her hopes to be frozen to the High Court judge.
Can cryogenics make our bodies immortal? No cases have been reported yet but growing potential of this technique makes the desire to win against death even greater and more exciting, leaving research in this field of the utmost importance.
Marek Zenon Wolczynski is studying for a BA in Biochemistry with German for Science at Imperial College London
Banner Image: Cryogenics, Wikimedia Commons