Science has long been drawn to the idea of human cryogenics – preserving a human by freezing him in such a way that he can be thawed out later, good as new.
Both scientists and science fiction authors have long mulled the possibilities associated with freezing a person, leaving them in a kind of suspended animation for a long time, and then unfreezing them back to life.
Already, companies are offering human cryogenic services whereby you can freeze your whole body or (for the budget conscious) just the head until some future time.
The theory is that, eventually, whatever ails you — be it illness or simply the decrepitude of aging — will be curable. At that time, the custodians of your body will be directed to thaw it out.
You may be wondering why someone would freeze just their head. After all, one’s quality-of-life would be somewhat restricted without the torso. The theory is that recent accomplishments in re-growing body parts of mice (salamanders naturally do it) will someday be extended to people.
Why freeze a damaged or aged body when you can wake up to a brand-new perfect one? Apart from recent successes with the cloning of body parts, proponents of nanotechnology argue that within 20 years or so it will be possible to design microscopic machines that scour your body for defects. When these “nano bots” find such defects, they will instantly correct them, thereby restoring your physiology to that of a vital 20-year-old.
In addition to the potential medical benefits, those who believe that we can never surpass the speed of light believe that human cryogenics suspension may hold the answer to deep space travel.
Under this scenario, a team of explorers or even a group of colonists would be frozen early in their journey from Earth. Upon arrival in the destination star system, the ship’s computer systems and robotics with thaw out the people, ready for their new life.
From an investment standpoint, I’m far more interested in the medical applications of human cryogenics than the space travel ones. They are, pardon the pun, a lot closer to hand.
So, what does the new research say to us about this possibility? ScienceDaily reports that recent findings at the University of Helsinki support the possibility of cryopreservation without formation of ice crystals. If true, this would be a crucial development in human cryogenics because it’s formation of the ice crystals that ruptures delicate cell membranes.
Surprisingly, the report declares that water is “still one of the least understood of all liquids despite a century of intensive study.” Dr. Anatoli Bogdan of University of Helsinki has focused his research upon an exotic form of water called “glassy water.”
Published in the ACS Journal of Physical Chemistry B, Dr. Bogdan’s research found that by slowly super cooling glassy water it could be reduced to cryonic temperatures without formation of ice crystals.
Dr. Bogdan commented, “It may seem fantastic, but the fact that in aqueous solution, [the] water component can be slowly supercooled to the glassy state and warmed back without the crystallization implies that, in principle, if the suitable cyroprotectant is created, cells in plants and living matter could withstand a large supercooling and survive.”
Even though I’m a technology optimist, I don’t expect to see commercial human cryogenic applications of this new technology in the next one or two years. First, the work needs to be translated into lower organisms such as mice. If they can be supercooled and restored, it will make front-page headlines.
Even after successful test with mice, human tests would require FDA protocols and would take years to identify test subjects and run the experiment. One delaying factor would be the nature of the technology itself: Since it can only be ethically applied to people who have terminal disease, they cannot be thawed out until the disease has been cured.
Bottom line: I expect human cryogenics to have great significance in about 10 to 15 years. Meanwhile, I’ll be watching for the law of unintended consequences to kick in — some bright researcher may come up with a shorter-term animal-based application that has big dollar signs associated with it.
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