Immortality and Plan B: Cryopreservation
Thanks to exponential technological advances, we might be able to stop aging processes by the middle of this century. Indeed, it is possible that in just two, three or four decades, we will be able to extend lifespans indefinitely. Some scientists are already beginning to discuss that aging is a disease, for the first time in history, but that it is a curable disease. In the meantime, however, we still need a Plan B to try to keep people alive, and that is cryopreservation for those unlucky to die before we can cure aging.
Exponential Technologies and Increasing Longevity
Average human life expectancy has increased radically thanks to medical advances, which are now happening faster and faster, following an exponential increase in human knowledge. Regenerative medicine, stem cell treatments, gene therapies, 3D printing of organs, rejuvenation therapies, telomere lengthening, bioengineering, molecular nanotechnology, anti-aging drugs, therapeutic cloning, tissue regeneration, growth hormone treatments, and other advances, might help to defeat aging in a few decades.
Companies like Google are realizing that curing aging is scientifically possible, and so in 2013 Google created a company called Calico (California Life Company) in order to control, stop and reverse the aging processes. Human Longevity Inc. was created in 2014 by American visionary technologists Peter Diamandis, Robert Hariri and Craig Venter to also understand and cure aging, beginning with the massive sequence of human genomes. Additionally, there are non-profits dedicated completely to cure and reverse aging, like the Methuselah Foundation and the SENS Research Foundation. Additionally, Joon Yun, a millionaire medical doctor in Silicon Valley created the equivalent of a Nobel Prize for Immortality, with the name of the Palo Alto Longevity Prize and an award of one million dollars.
The proof of concept that indefinite lifespans are truly possible is that they already exist in nature today. Among some lifeforms, both unicellular and multicellular organisms, no senescence has been found. Some single cells are basically immortal, like bacterial colonies that are considered immortal, and since bacteria were the first basic life forms in our planet, we could say that life appeared to live, not to die. Similarly, stem cells and germinal cells can reproduce indefinitely, as long as they have the inputs and nutrition to thrive and reproduce. The same is true about cancer cells, like the famous HeLa cells that can live and multiply indefinitely.
Some multicellular organisms like Hydras and some species of Jellyfish do not seem to undergo any senescence and, as such, can potentially be considered to be biologically immortal, as long as they are not eaten or killed. Planarian flatworms appear to regenerate indefinitely and seem to have and apparently limitless telomere regenerative capacity fueled by highly proliferative adult stem cells. Therefore, not just unicellular bacteria and gametes but also some multicellular organisms have a lot to teach about indefinite longevity. They are the living proof that senescence is not a compulsory byproduct of being alive.
We might soon reach what I call the “death of death”, when death will be basically optional. We might never be completely immortal, since we might always die from accidents, or be killed in many ways, but the objective is to kill involuntary death. Living indefinitely will be possible from both the hardware (biological) side and the software (mental) side.
On the hardware side, English biogerontologist Aubrey de Grey believes that we will soon reach “longevity escape velocity”, which basically means that with continuously increasing lifespans, we will be adding more years to our existence for every additional year that we live. This idea has also been called the “Methuselarity” or “Methuselah Singularity”. Many experiments are currently being done to extend the life, and also rejuvenate, little mice that actually share a big part of our own genome.
On the software side, American engineer and futurist Ray Kurzweil believes that by 2029 an artificial intelligence will pass the Turing Test, and by 2045 the so-called “Technological Singularity” will be reached. That means that artificial intelligence will reach and surpass human intelligence levels, and we will augment and complement with such additional intelligences. We will then connect our biological neocortex to an artificial exocortex, and we will be able to upload and enhance our minds.
Either through our hardware, our software, or both, we will be able to advance towards the idea of the death of death, at least as much as possible, escaping any accidents and avoiding to be killed.
The Bridge Toward Immortality
As discussed earlier, indefinite lifespans should be possible in a few decades, but what can we do until then? The sad truth is that people will continue dying for the next few years, and the only way that we know today to preserve them relatively well is through cryopreservation. Indeed, cryopreservation can be considered as Plan B until we reach Plan A of indefinite lifespans.
The modern era of cryonics began in 1962 when Michigan physics teacher Robert Ettinger published his book The Prospect of Immortality, where he considered that freezing people may be a way to reach future medical technology. Even though freezing a person is apparently fatal, Ettinger argued that what appears to be fatal today may be reversible in the future. He applied the same argument to the process of dying itself, saying that the early stages of clinical death may be reversible in the future. Combining these two ideas, he suggested that freezing recently deceased people may be a way to save lives. Based on those ideas, Ettinger and four other colleagues founded in 1976 the Cryonics Institute near Detroit, Michigan. Their first patient was Ettinger’s mother who was cryopreserved in 1977, with her whole body frozen at the boiling temperature of liquid nitrogen (-196 °C).
In the meantime, in California, another cryopreservation institution was founded in 1972 by Fred and Lisa Chamberlain with the name of Alcor Life Extension Foundation (originally named Alcor Society for Solid State Hypothermia until 1977). Their first patient was Fred Chamberlain’s father in 1976, who underwent a neuropreservation, with only the head being cryopreserved. Alcor eventually moved in 1993 to Scottsdale, Arizona, far away from seismic California, and its current president is English-born philosopher and futurist Max More.
“The science of cryonics is an extension of today’s emergency medicine and could very well give humankind another chance at life once technology advances far enough to revive cryonics patients cryopreserved at Alcor” has explained Max More. Many patients elect to freeze just their heads. Some do so for financial reasons; others believe all human identity and memory is stored in the brain and so a whole body will not be necessary.
Cryonics Institute only does full-body cryopreservations, while Alcor does both neuropreservations and full-body cryopreservations. By late 2015, Cryonics Institute had 135 patients under cryopreservation and 1,214 members, while Alcor had 139 patients (of which around three quarters are neuropatients) and 1,221 members. Both institutions also have many frozen tissue/DNA samples, and pets and other animals under cryopreservation. Cryonics Institute charges US$ 28,000 – US$ 35,000 for full-body cryopreservations (not including the expensive SST costs: Standby/Stabilization/Transport), and Alcor charges US$ 80,000 for neuropreservations and US $200,000 for full-body cryopreservations (normally including all the expensive SST costs).
Even though their patient and membership numbers are still relatively small, Cryonics Institute and Alcor were basically the only two cryopreservation organizations in the world until 2005, when KrioRus was funded outside of Moscow. Additionally, there are currently small groups in Argentina and Oregon that each have just one neuropatient, but those are the exceptions to the rule.
Does Cryonics Work?
No one yet has been revived after been cryopreserved, but that is also because we can’t yet cure the conditions that caused the terminal condition at the time. However, thanks to exponential technological advances, it is very likely that we should be able to reanimate the patients in the next few decades. Once again, the proof of concept is that it has already been done with certain living cells.
Water-bears (Tardigrade) are microscopic multicellular organisms that can naturally survive by replacing most of their internal water with the sugar trehalose, preventing it from crystallization that otherwise damages cell membranes. In January 2016, it was announced that a Tardigrade was reanimated in perfect condition after having been frozen at -20 °C for 30 years in Japan.
Several vertebrates also have freeze tolerance, in which organisms survive the winter by freezing solid and ceasing life functions. Some species of frogs, turtles, salamanders, snakes and lizards can survive nominal freezing and recover completely after overwintering in cold climates. Species of bacteria, fungi, plants, fish, insects and amphibians who live near the poles have evolved cryoprotectants that allow them to survive during freezing conditions.
English scientist Janes Lovelock, best known for proposing the Gaia hypothesis about life on Earth, was probably the first person who tried to freeze and reanimate animals. In 1955, Lovelock froze some rats at 0 °C and then reanimated them successfully using microwave diathermy. And just recently DARPA began funding research about suspended animation, essentially “shutting down” the heart and brain until proper care can be administered that can be regarded as a step to cryopreservation of humans.
Eggs, sperm and even embryos are normally cryopreserved today in order to be reanimated later. Frozen eggs and sperm have been used in animal reproduction, and even human embryos have been cryonically suspended and later allowed to develop without any birth or development problems at all. Additionally, blood, umbilical cords, bone marrow, plant seeds and different tissue samples have been frozen and unfrozen successfully.
In terms of memory preservation after freezing, American artist and futurist Natasha Vita-More and Spanish biologist Daniel Barranco recently performed interesting research on the persistence of long-term memory of vitrified and revived nematode worm Caenorhabditis elegans. During 2014 and 2015, they experimented with cryopreserving C. elegans and reanimating them later to test their long-term memories as indicated by odorant imprints. The result was that C. elegans “remembered” their learning acquired through olfactory cues after vitrification and slow freezing. Humans are certainly not worms, but the fact that C elegans could still recognize learned olfactory signals after cryopreservation, is an important indication of what can be possible.
- Cryopreserved people might someday soon be recovered by using highly advanced technologies. More and more scientific literature supports the feasibility of cryonics. An open letter supporting the idea of cryonics has been signed by many prestigious scientists until now, including Aubrey de Grey and American scientist Marvin Minsky, considered one of the “fathers” of artificial intelligence. In 2015, a group of scientists from Liverpool, Cambridge and Oxford, established the UK Cryonics and Cryopreservation Research Network to advance and promote research into cryobiology and its applications, including cryonics. Thus, more and more people around the world are beginning to consider that successful human cryopreservation is indeed possible, particularly because the proof of concept is already available.
From Russia with Love: My Visit to KrioRus
People familiar with cryonics are normally acquainted with the two major cryopreservation facilities in the USA: Cryonics Institute near Detroit, Michigan, and Alcor in Scottsdale, Arizona. But in 2005 a new organization was created outside of Moscow, Russia, by Russian futurist Danila Medvedev.
I first met Medvedev in 2005, when he came to Venezuela for a transhumanist conference that I organized called TransVision 2005. The main speaker of that conference was Sir Arthur C. Clarke, famous science fiction writer who wrote about cryonics in his bestsellers, like Space Odyssey 2001. Clarke could not come to Venezuela because of his physical condition, but we had a wonderful teleconference. Other speakers at TransVision 2005 included Natasha Vita-More, Max More, biophysicist Gregory Stock, entrepreneur Martine Rothblatt, futurist Jerome Glenn, and many other visionaries. Medvedev spoke there about his plans to create the first cryopreservation facility outside of the USA, which he did after returning to Russia.
In November 2015, I visited Medvedev and KrioRus. The current facilities are located in Sergiyev Posad, a beautiful old city about 70 km northeast of Moscow. Sergiyev Posad is very famous as a religious and tourist destination, and contains one of the greatest of Russian monasteries, the Trinity Lavra established by St. Sergius of Radonezh in the 14th century. Thus, Sergiyev Posad has been a very appropriate location for cryopreservation as a traditional resting place for saints and monarchs. However, KrioRus is already outgrowing its current facilities and is planning to move to another nearby location also north of Moscow, where there will also be a hospice and additional facilities for terminal patients, next to the cryopreservation facilities with more research capabilities.
Danila Medvedev and José Luis Cordeiro at KrioRus in Sergiyev Posad
The growth of KrioRus has been spectacular compared to the older and lager Alcor and Cryonics Institute. In just once decade, KrioRus has managed to cryopreserve 50 humans, 8 dogs, 7 cats, 3 birds, and 1 chinchilla rodent, all until December 2015. Their first patient was Lidiya Fedorenko in 2005, who was originally cryosuspended with dry ice for several months until the first cryostats container was ready. Medvedev’s grandmother is one of those under neuropreservation. Like Cryonics Institute, KrioRus uses cryostats, which are large thermos containers made of fiberglass/resin filled with liquid nitrogen, as opposed to the more expensive individual Dewar flasks used by Alcor. All the patients, pets and tissues cryopreserved in KrioRus are stored in two large cryostats specially designed by KrioRus, which has gained enough experience to build new ones needed for their next larger facilities.
KrioRus charges US$ 12,000 for neuropreservations and US$ 36,000 for full-body cryopreservations, without considering any large Standby/Stabilization/Transport costs, which have to be considered separately. Animal and tissue cryopreservations are cheaper depending on the size and special conditions. In the past decade, they have managed to attract patients not only from Russia, but also from many other countries around Europe, like Italy, the Netherlands and Switzerland, and much farther away like Australia, Japan and the USA. Just like the case with Alcor, more than half the patients are neuropreservations.
The relatively fast growth of KrioRus indicates that good and economic services can help to popularize cryopreservation. Even if many people might still think that cryonics might be just science fiction, we might remember the very famous three Laws of the Future by Sir Arthur C. Clarke:
- When a distinguished but elderly scientist states that something is possible, he is almost certainly right. When he states that something is impossible, he is very probably wrong.
- The only way of discovering the limits of the possible is to venture a little way past them into the impossible.
- Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.
From Spain with Live: The Birth of Cryopreservation in Madrid
I am currently involved in the creation of the fourth cryopreservation facility in the world, after the older two in the USA, and the newer one in Russia. Together with famous Spanish economist Ramón Tamames, member of the Royal Academy of Political and Moral Sciences, José Luis Mazuelas, president of the VidaPlus Foundation for umbilical cords cryopreservation, and Felipe Debasa Navalpotro, lawyer and historian at Universidad Rey Juan Carlos, we are creating a foundation to promote cryopreservation in Spain. Furthermore, Ramón Tamames has agreed to be cryonically suspended when the time comes.
The emphasis will not only be Spain but also all of Europe. The original facility will be in Madrid, in collaboration with the VidaPlus Foundation, with easy and convenient access to different parts of Spain and other members of the European Union, which have many similar rules concerning mortuary procedures.
Spain has the additional advantage of having had for almost a century insurance for decease, which can be used to cover cryopreservation. This was later spread to other European countries, but not all European Union members created such decease insurance that could help now to pay for a cryonic suspension.
Just like the state of Florida in North America, Spain serves as a summer or permanent resident for older and retired people from all over Europe and beyond. Thus, Madrid, as the capital of Spain, is a very centric and appropriate place for having a major cryopreservation facility. Based on the rapid growth of KrioRus, it is expected that the same might be replicated and augmented in Spain.
Time will tell, but cryonics is an idea whose time has come, and Madrid is ready to welcome cryopatients from all over the world. Madrid used to be called the capital of the “Empire where the Sun never sets”, and now it can become the capital where life never sets. Spain is the Kingdom of “plus ultra”, and cryonics is a great opportunity for Spain and the world to go “further beyond”.
Once again, life appeared to live, not to die. We will probably be able to cure aging by the middle of this century, so let’s declare war to aging to move faster, but cryonics is Plan B in the meantime. We already have the proofs of concept that indefinite lifespans are possible, and that cryonics is possible too. We now need more scientific breakthroughs to solve some technical problems, since we know that it should be possible, and the sooner, the better for humanity. Every human loss is a tragedy, certainly a personal tragedy, and we can stop it. While we wait for the death of death, while we wait for indefinite lifespans: Long life to cryopreservation!
José Luis Cordeiro MBA, PhD (www.cordeiro.org)
Visiting Research Fellow, IDE-JETRO, Tokyo, Japan (www.ide.go.jp)
Director, The Millennium Project, Venezuela Node (www.Millennium-Project.org)
Adjunct Professor, Moscow Institute of Physics and Technology, Russia (www.mipt.ru)
Founder and President Emeritus, World Future Society, Venezuela Chapter (www.FuturoVenezuela.net)
Founding Energy Advisor/Faculty, Singularity University, NASA Research Park, California (www.SingularityU.org)