Author: Vedika Vaghmare
We all know about Captain America’s story: suspended in ice for decades until he was revived in the present day. The possibility of a living creature being preserved and revived, much later like Captain America, sounds like something that can only happen in science fiction books and movies. However, scientists have been looking into the process since as early as the 18th century.
Schering AG/Getty Images
Cryopreservation is the process of using cooling temperatures to store and preserve cells, tissues, and other biological structures. In 1776, Lazzaro Spallanzani, an Italian priest and biologist, was the first to attempt to preserve spermatozoa (sperm) by cooling it into the snow. He documented that the motion of the cells significantly decreased in the snow but rejuvenated when re-warmed. This discovery has helped modern society, with many sperm banks in the world that use methods to freeze and store sperm cells for future use in infertility treatment.
Although scientists have been successful in cryopreserving smaller constructs such as cells and tissues, preserving and reviving entire human beings has yet to be done. Organizations such as Cryonic Institute and Alcor cryo-preserve and store bodies in hopes that one day future technology will become so advanced that they can bring them back.
How Human Cryopreservation Works (according to Alcor)
To be cryo-preserved, one has to become a member of a cryonics organization which can cost anywhere ranging from $80,000 to $200,000. Currently, 1,331 people are members of the Alcor institute (meaning that they will become cryopreserved at the time of their death) and 181 patients have already gone through the procedure. Many people decide to sign up to be cryopreserved with their friends and family in hopes of seeing them one day in the future.
Before the dying process, a cryonics team is waiting on standby until the patient undergoes cardiac arrest or is declared “legally dead”. The heartbeat and breathing of the patient has ceased at this point and further resuscitation is not possible. It is important for the cryonics procedure to begin 2-3 minutes after the heartbeat has stopped since during this stage of death, the cells and organs of the patient are still viable to begin the cryopreservation process. Longer than 15 minutes creates a burden for future technologies to revive the body .
After stabilizing the body, which includes artificially restarting blood circulation and breathing to preserve the brain, an ice bath is administered to cool the body and the patient’s blood is replaced with an organ preservation solution.
The patient is then transferred to their preferred storing location where they perfuse cryoprotectants into the bloodstream- this process is called vitrification. Cryoprotectants are chemicals that help to reduce the amount of damage by low temperatures on cells or tissues. For the next couple of days, the patient’s body is cooled down at -196°C (-320.8°F) so that it is in a solid state. Alcor states that the patient is now “protected from deterioration for theoretically thousands of years, and the dying process has been effectively stopped.”
The final step of the cryopreservation process is the storing of the bodies. The patient is placed inside a dawar, a vacuum insulated metal tank, with temperatures under 0°C (32°F) induced by liquid nitrogen that is replaced regularly. The storing of the patient is to be continued until revival is possible.
Conclusion: The Dilemma
Is it worth it to prolong our lives? Should we naturally accept our fates of death or continue to find ways to work around it? Some people believe that without death, our lives are meaningless and it's not healthy to deny or work our ways around it. Others believe that it can help us advance as a society, learning and building off our own experiences. If cryopreservation becomes successful one day, should it be an individual’s choice or should everyone be forced to do it? Would you do it?
Author: Vedika Vaghmare
Vedika is a Junior in highschool who is interested in science and math. In her free time, she enjoys making art, listening to music, and spending time with her family!
Roxby, Philippa. “What Does Cryopreservation Do to Human Bodies?” BBC News, BBC, 18 Nov. 2016, www.bbc.com/news/health-38019392.
The Irish Times. “A Short History of Frozen Sperm.” The Irish Times, The Irish Times, 22 Jan. 2004, www.irishtimes.com/news/health/a-short-history-of-frozen-sperm-1.1145987.
“What Is Cryonics?” Alcor, www.alcor.org/what-is-cryonics/.