A chilling recipe for eternal life

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What if it takes one single pill to rewind your clock of life? No more health issues, you are no longer getting old… Impossible? According to some, not in the future. And as a Russian cryonics firm insists, they have the way of taking you there.

­Panacea pill

­Speaking in an out-of-town, somewhat shabby storage facility that belongs to KrioRus, Danila Medvedev, the head of the company’s board of directors, was putting all his effort into trying to assure me that rejuvenation is not going to be a problem in the future.

“Aging is a problem of today, because we don’t know how it works,” Dr. Medvedev begins. “In 100 years or so it will only take one single pill to alter the epigenetic regulation in all cells of your body in accordance with a required program.”

For someone with a degree in economics, Medvedev, who also introduced himself as a futurologist and a member of the co-ordination board of the Russian Transhumanist Movement, seemed to feel, perhaps, too comfortable going deep into such details of various molecular processes occurring in our organism. Being a molecular geneticist myself, I was truly impressed.

“In other words,” he continued, “the smart pill, depending on how exactly you are aging, will make, for instance, liver cells increase the expression of a particular gene three-fold, while nanocapsules with necessary proteins will do their job and activate the required genes. If you have excess fat deposits in your body, the cells of fat will be instructed to dedifferentiate into stem cells and creep away to where they are needed to increase regeneration processes, and so on.”

Any person who takes such a pill, Dr. Medvedev predicts, will become young again in a week’s time.

“Your bones will regenerate, your skin will regenerate – it will start producing collagen again, and your wrinkles will disappear. The brain will become more powerful, as it will now be producing all sorts of useful, necessary chemicals – so, you’ll be even cleverer than before. And all this – even without any physical manipulations,” the head of the company concluded.

Danila Medvedev, PhD, KrioRus Head of the board of directors, futurologist, member of the Co-ordination Board of the Russian Transhumanist Movement (RT Photo / Vitaliy Matveev). Click to enlarge
Danila Medvedev, PhD, KrioRus Head of the board of directors, futurologist, member of the Co-ordination Board of the Russian Transhumanist Movement (RT Photo / Vitaliy Matveev). Click to enlarge

­Getting to the future

­Disputes over the potential of future technologies may last as long as it takes to create a technology itself. For this reason, let us save ourselves some time and imagine that everything is going to be exactly as Dr. Medvedev predicts. After all, could Swiss physician Friedrich Miescher have dreamt of anything like genetic engineering or gene therapy when, back in1869, he discovered in a pus sample what later became known as DNA?

And yet, no matter how happy we can be for our future generations, it would be even better to find yourself among the lucky ones – those with the Magic Pill in a prescription from their family doctor. However, with the time machine being out of the question for another… well, perhaps, forever, what other ways of getting into this glorious future can we count on?

Medvedev and like-minded people are certain that cryonics is the answer.

Cryonics is a complex of knowledge aimed at low-temperature preservation of bodies of those humans or animals that can no longer be sustained by contemporary medicine, with a view to their possible reanimation in the future, when appropriate technologies and cures will supposedly be available.

The backbone of this ideology is based on the assumption that people who are considered dead by today’s medical and legal standards may not necessarily be dead from the point of future medicine – the one based on deeper knowledge and supported by appropriate techniques. This is the reason why at the Russian cryonics firm they refer to their clients as “patients”… even to the dead ones.

So far, the United States and Russia are the only two countries where cryopreservation of people and subsequent storage of frozen bodies are in practice. However, initial procedures can only be performed on humans after they have been pronounced legally dead. Otherwise it would count as murder or assisted suicide.

Since this procedure was first proposed in 1962, around 200 people have been preserved in the United States. And since KrioRus was founded in 2005, 15 have undergone cryopreservation in Russia. Most of them are stored at the company’s facility in the village of Alabushevo, north-west of Moscow, including four bodies, eight extracted brains, as well as three dogs and three cats. The rest of the deceased remain with their relatives who chose to store their late loved ones in the comfort of their own homes. For that, they had to seek the company's expertise in order to ensure appropriate storage conditions.

Cryostat, or “dewar”,  Moscow Region (RT Photo / Vitaliy Matveev). Click to enlarge
Cryostat, or “dewar”, Moscow Region (RT Photo / Vitaliy Matveev). Click to enlarge

­Freezing deeper

­As of now, cryopreservation of people or large animals is not reversible, and the major obstacle here is the ice. When tissues are frozen, the water inside begins to expand, damaging cell membranes. The damage is even worse if the tissue is not frozen immediately, because in this case ice crystals have plenty of time to grow, inevitably rupturing cell membranes and intracellular structures.

At the same time, immediate freezing is only possible with small objects. However, scientists have succeeded in reversible freezing of much larger organs, such as rat hearts and swine livers, as well as slices of rabbit brain. These organs or their parts had been successfully resuscitated. The liver was even transplanted to a pig where it lasted for two hours and reportedly produced bile. As for the sliced rabbit brain, it regained its bioelectric activity as soon as it was allowed to thaw out, says Yury Pichugin, a US-based Russian scientist and the author of this 1995 research.

In all these and other similar experiments the trick was in using substances known as cryoprotectants. These are liquids that normally freeze at much lower temperatures than water and do not form crystals once frozen. Glycerin is one such example. Prior to freezing the tissues or organs, the water in them would have to be replaced with a carefully selected cryoprotectant. In the case of whole organs or even bodies this is achieved through a process known as perfusion, when the required substance is pumped in through the blood stream.

Cryopreservation of the entire body appears to be a common practice in cryonics. However, as Danila Medvedev explains, it is not necessary. Instead, preserving the brain would be enough, as this organ is the receptacle of memory and personality, while the body could be grown from scratch using future technologies.

Part of cryogenic equipment (RT Photo / Vitaliy Matveev). Click to enlarge
Part of cryogenic equipment (RT Photo / Vitaliy Matveev). Click to enlarge

­Getting started

­Cryonics procedures ideally begin within minutes of cardiac arrest. However, in practice this often proves to be problematic. Medvedev says it usually starts with a phone call from a relative, when the client is already dead.

“As soon as we reach the patient, we cool the body with ice, in order to make all chemical processes slow down, including the decay,” Dr. Medvedev explained. “Simultaneously, we connect to the blood stream and begin pumping the cryoprotectant inside, gradually increasing its concentration. The solution we use is based on glycerin.”

If no complications arise, such as vascular illnesses or certain cancers, the perfusion is supposed to ensure sufficient level of cryoprotectant in the tissues.

“After that, depending on where this all takes place and how long we have to travel back, we either cool the body to the temperature of dry ice [–78 degrees centigrade, or –109.3 degrees Fahrenheit] and then transport it to our facility, or take it there right away and then put in the liquid nitrogen inside our large dewar,” Medvedev said.

Refilling the dewar with liquid nitrogen (RT Photo / Vitaliy Matveev). Click to enlarge
Refilling the dewar with liquid nitrogen (RT Photo / Vitaliy Matveev). Click to enlarge

­Don’t count on Chip ‘n’ Dale

­The more impressive the dewar, or cryostat, is, the more out of place it seems to be in its present setting in a cluttered hangar in the Moscow countryside. No fancy high-tech buildings, no shiny helicopters on high alert for the next mission, no sexy assistants in tights – nothing that comes to your mind once you think of a business based on technologies of the future. Well, at least when it comes to the way Hollywood tends to portray similar things.

And the lack of shiny choppers is not the only reason why things do not always go as slick as in Hollywood productions. Cryonics may happen to be the link with the future for some – it still has to deal with today’s realities.

“If someone pictures cryonics as Chip ‘n’ Dale flying in and doing everything right away – it’s not quite so,” Danila Medvedev insists. “It may be like this, say, in 10 years, and will cost millions anyway. And then, for real, you get these specially trained people in shiny suits and helmets flying in in their helicopter, grabbing the body, immediately getting it aboard and pumping with cryoprotectants, so that by the time they return it’s perfectly ready to be put in storage in liquid nitrogen.”

And the financial aspect is not the only one that constrains such quick-response procedures from being introduced already now. It also requires enormous infrastructure, both within and outside the cryonics company, as well as numerous agreements with all sorts of state authorities – from medical providers to emergency services.

“At this stage we have to be prepared well beforehand,” Dr. Medvedev continues. “We have to find out who the treating physician is, who the patient’s heirs are, lawyers and so on, and so forth… When everything is sorted out, we only have to hope that all the matters will be addressed in time. And the main obstacle is not even everything being prohibited, it’s the Russian mentality. ‘Can we do this?’ – ‘No, you can’t’ – ‘May we do that?’ – ‘No, you may not.’”

With all that, the situation in the West is even worse, Medvedev insists:

“All 50 states in the USA, for instance, have their own rules and regulations… American society is also very religious. Some people, though, like Larry King, who is also an atheist, express their will to be cryopreserved. But most are still extremely against this idea: half of the population there believes that they will witness the advent of Jesus in the near future.”

Looking into the future: the company’s frozen clients inside the cryostat (RT Photo / Vitaliy Matveev). Click to enlarge
Looking into the future: the company’s frozen clients inside the cryostat (RT Photo / Vitaliy Matveev). Click to enlarge

­Financial aspect

­Numerous uncertainties feeding skepticism around cryonics are not restricted to the scientific basis of the whole concept. Provided that bodies, or patients, are meant to be stored for decades, if not centuries, financial concerns associated with cryonics seem quite natural.

Indeed, what should the optimal payment scheme look like given the close-to-perpetual storage term and high costs involved? If ongoing payment is required, what will happen if relatives or future descendants pull out and refuse to continue payment? Finally, what if the company suddenly goes bankrupt?

Forty years of cryonics’ history have already proven that an ongoing payment system is not an option: relatives do tend to change their minds and halt payment. For this reason, all modern organizations demand full upfront payment from their clients. Yet the costs vary greatly: from US $10,000 for cryopreservation of the brain and US $30,000 for the whole body charged in Russia, to US $80,000 and US $200,000, respectively, in the case of the US-based Alcor. These charges are sometimes complemented by additional fees, to cover the cost of standby teams and other expenses incurred.

In the West, life insurance is, perhaps, the most common way of paying for cryopreservation. This approach allows spreading the high costs over many years. However, with the advent of Russia’s firm, cryonics has become more affordable even for last-minute cases, at least for those from the former Soviet Union and Europe – the region the firm focuses its activity on.

But are those sums the company charges for its services really enough to cover all current and future expenses affiliated with the storage itself, as well as all operating costs? Medvedev assures that the cost of liquid nitrogen is practically negligible, provided new clients keep coming: the company’s cryostat is big enough to accommodate many patients, and therefore the consumption of liquid nitrogen will remain the same for a long time. Yet, the best performance bond the company can give to its clients, he says, is that its leadership, including himself, have their own relatives preserved in the same dewar.

With all that, there is another intriguing question none of the existing cryonics companies, perhaps, would be able to answer at this point. Who is going to cover the costs of future “resurrection” and subsequent “repair works”? Something tells me that making the price of the Magic Pill affordable may actually prove to be more challenging than inventing the cure itself.

­From humans to superhumans

­Despite all odds, the head of Russian cryonics is optimistic. Medvedev points out that cryonics, at least in Russia, began with the ideas of transhumanism – the movement that affirms the possibility of greatly enhancing human physical and intellectual capabilities by means of emerging technologies.

“The first steps in this direction are already taken,” Dr. Medvedev says. “That includes creating and growing artificial organs, development of brain prostheses and brain-computer interfaces, genetic engineering of animals and potentially – humans, gene therapy, genetics, genomics and post-genomic medicine.”

Medvedev and other transhumanists believe that further progress in science and technology gives a real chance of becoming “posthumans” even to those who live today. Well, if they are right, it may eventually take less than a flight to Krypton to meet real supermen and superwomen – just give it a century or two…

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­Vitaliy Matveev, RT