Business News/ Opinion / Views/  Want to avoid death? Maybe cryonics isn't crazy

Want to Avoid Death? Maybe Cryonics Isn't Crazy

Emil Kendziorra has his death all planned out.

In the event that his life is cut short, a team of medical professionals will supply the man’s recently-deceased body with oxygen until it can be transported to a suspension facility. There, the blood and water in his body will be replaced by a chemical mixture, a kind of human antifreeze, to prevent ice crystals from forming when his body is placed in arctic cold liquid nitrogen. Known as vitrification, this will put his cells into a state of suspended animation.

The goal is that many decades from now, the medical community will be able cure whatever ailment ended Kendziorra’s life and resurrect him from his suspension. It’s possible this won’t work. But, for now, he is sticking with the plan, and the process is not that expensive, nor outlandish.

The field of cryogenics has been gaining ground over the last few decades, albeit very slowly and amid endless ridicule by scientists. To date, about 500 people have been put in cryogenic stasis after legal death, with the majority of them in the US. But a few thousand more, including Kendziorra, are on waiting lists, wearing bracelets or necklaces with instructions for emergency responders.

Kendziorra, 36, runs Berlin-based Tomorrow Biostasis GmbH, one of the first cryonics businesses in Europe to join a market dominated by American firms organizations like The Alcor Life Extension Foundation and The Cryonics Institute. The former cancer doctor has several hundred people on his firm’s waiting list. They skew to their late 30s, male and tend to work in technology. Patients can choose to have their entire body preserved and held upside down(1)in a four-person dewar, a thermos-like aluminum vat filled with liquid nitrogen, or just preserve their brain, which is cheaper.

Kendziorra says cryopreservation overall has become less expensive over the past few decades on an inflation-adjusted basis, a claim that he bases on historic prices published by his peers, who he says are making a collective effort to bring down costs.

That could be critical to shifting cryonics from a fringe pursuit to something a little more mainstream, especially since it is no longer just for billionaires like PayPal Inc. co-founder Peter Thiel (who has reportedly signed up with Alcor). Kendziorra, for instance, has made cryonics just another monthly subscription by capitalizing on insurance, he told me during a Twitter Spaces discussion on cryonics last month.

His customers pay a 25-euro ($26.54) monthly fee to Tomorrow Biostasis, and they also make the company the beneficiary of a minimum 100,000-euro life insurance payout upon their legal death. Kendziorra says that covers the full cost of cryonics including the biggest outlay: maintenance over the next century or so. All told, most of his customers are paying about 50 euros a month for both the company’s subscription fee and the life insurance policy for the option of a long sleep at death.

Of course, most companies don’t survive for more than a century, so Tomorrow Biostasis also partners with a non-profit group in Switzerland to carry out the storage of customers on its behalf. Arizona-based Alcor, one of the biggest cryonics organizations with 1,400 people on its waitlist, is also structured as a non-profit foundation. The domain itself is largely funded by wealthy individuals including CEOs of tech companies, angel investors and scientists, Kendziorra says, adding that for them to invest in his own firm, their primary motivation shouldn’t be “monetary" but rather to help further the field.

The mechanics all sound sensible, but that still leaves the question of whether cryonics will work, medically speaking. Doctors and scientists have used words like quackery, pseudoscience and outright fraud to describe the field. Clive Cohen, a neuroscientist from Kings College London, has called it a “hopeless aspiration that reveals an appalling ignorance of biology." The Association of Cryobiology has compared it to turning a hamburger back into a cow.

But it’s foolish to dismiss an option that looks at least potentially viable given the advances technology has made in the last few decades and the milestones science will likely continue to achieve amid the declining cost of cryonics. The field overall deserves to be taken more seriously. For his part, Kendziorra would rather take the slim chance that he might one day be revived to extend his life: “I very much hope that I never need to but if I get diagnosed with an incurable disease, where the alternative is burial or cremation, then I'd much rather be cryopreserved."

There are, of course, many complex issues still to solve, including whether to vitrify people’s bodies with chemical fixation, which causes less structural damage but makes biological revival more difficult, and whether to risk fracturing the body’s cells to the point where they can’t function again after thawing.

Kendziorra says that storing a body at -196° Celsius means that there is almost no degradation to a person’s body even over many decades, but little is known about how well the delicate synaptic circuitry of the brain is preserved, or whether it could ever be fixed if damaged. And aside from curing whatever ailment killed one of his customers, scientists would also have to be able to reverse death itself.

Yet that seemingly fundamental problem also points to the most intriguing argument of cryonics — around defining death.

Consider that the lifesaving action we now called CPR, or cardiopulmonary resuscitation, only came to mainstream attention in the 1960s. Before then, it was reasonable to declare someone dead at the point of a cardiac arrest. Today it would be considered medical malpractice to not try and resuscitate someone whose heart has stopped beating. (The current record for restarting a heart is after nearly nine hours, when an Italian mountain climber suffered a hypothermic cardiac arrest during a freezing thunderstorm on the Dolomites, according to Guinness World Records.)

The shift in how we legally define death, and the possibility that science will advance to the point where it can resurrect damaged tissue and brain synapses — just as well as we can currently thaw embryos after decades on ice — makes it hard to disregard what may be possible in the future. Cryonics may serve to mostly put a pause on life, the aluminium dewars acting like an ambulance to a better-quality hospital in the future. It is not a futile quest for immortality as many critics have argued, but rather an effort to extend life a little more. That is not so outrageous.

Success is admittedly a tenuous bet. The field’s last big breakthrough was made more than a decade ago, in figuring out how to cool a body to freezing temperatures without forming ice crystals. The next milestone will be reviving a mammal from cryogenic temperatures, according to Kendziorra, and no one is close to achieving that. But when the cost of possibly extending life could come down to that of a monthly Netflix subscription, many more people may decide it’s worth a try.

Parmy Olson is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering technology. A former reporter for the Wall Street Journal and Forbes, she is author of “We Are Anonymous."


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Updated: 08 Jan 2023, 07:48 PM IST
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