Image Credit: Simone Syed – Alcor sign at facility in Scottsdale, AZ, USA
[Updated Friday, October 02, 2009 for clarity and to correct grammatical and spelling errors. Disclosure: Richard Leis is currently an Alcor customer; he was not at the time he originally wrote this article.]
The graveyard is a solemn place. Here the human tradition is to bury the dead remains of loved ones in expensive coffins at relatively shallow depths under soil, fading flowers, and memories. Family and friends find comfort where they can, maybe in church, maybe in regular visits to the grave. Some are certain that a next life follows this life and so for many the graveyard is part of death traditions passed down for generations.
Alcor is no graveyard.
On a warm Sunday in October 2007, the Alcor Life Extension Foundation opened its facility in Scottsdale, Arizona to visitors, capping a weekend of talks during the 7th Alcor Conference. Out in the parking lot was a BBQ: shredded meat on rolls, vegetarian lasagna, salad dripping with dressing, and peach cobbler. Speakers and attendees from the conference, Alcor staff, Alcor customers, family and friends gathered around tables for pleasant discussion, networking, and catching up. Alcor is not a solemn place. Rather it seemed to be a very happy place, despite the clinically dead hanging out just inside the Alcor facility.
Alcor is a cryonics company, where cryogenics technology is being used to store the remains of members (and a few of the member’s pets). Members of Alcor sign up for expensive services that will not kick in until they die. At that time, just as soon as they have been legally pronounced dead, Alcor will begin cryopreservation procedures. They will flush most of the water out of the body and replace it with cryoprotectants. After other preparations, the body will be stored in huge dewars of liquid nitrogen. Someday, Alcor members hope, technology will advance so far that their cryopreserved bodies will be resurrected.
Vitrification is a process somewhat like freezing, but without the nasty side effects. To freeze something is to introduce water ice crystals, dangerous daggers that wreak havoc on delicate biological material. A strawberry placed in a freezer might at first look beautiful when pulled out frozen, but let it thaw and what you have left will be a mushy remnant. Vitrification of biological material minimizes ice crystals. Water is removed, replaced with compounds that turn into a glass-like, smooth substance at low temperatures.
There is nothing fringe about cryogenics or the vitrification process; medicine has been revolutionized by the ability to store biological matter, including organs, at low temperature. However, cryonics – the application of cryogenics technology to vitrify human (and animal) bodies and brains – is controversial. The cells of the body are encased inside and out, bringing to a near standstill the chemical reactions that race forward unchecked when we die. This suggests to advocates of cryonics that bodies preserved in this way might be thawed, repaired, and brought back to life by future scientists wielding advanced technologies. Alcor bluntly admits in their marketing literature and conferences, however, that this is a long shot. What they are selling – and what consumers are buying – is that very minuscule but potentially non-zero chance of being revived in the future, healthy again and full of life. Even this minute chance is something burial and cremation cannot offer, and so some consumers find cryonics quite appealing as a third option. From their perspective, they are certainly no worse off if it turns out recovery from cryopreservation is impossible.
Inside the Alcor facility is the gear for modern cryopreservation. Open house attendees on that day signed up for tours of the facility, the schedule spread out over the course of an afternoon to allow time for everyone to eat and mingle. The first stop on the tour was a small room. In this room was the future.
Research on Rats
Alcor makes money by charging monthly membership fees, accepting donations, and being the beneficiary of the insurance policies most members use to pay for cryopreservation upon their death. With around 800 members, the company makes just enough to struggle with rising costs for facility operations and services that can begin at the member’s bedside even before legal death. In recent years Alcor has stabilized financially but they recognize that their best bet for new paying members rests with proving scientifically some of the claims of cryonics. Therefore Alcor is investing in a new animal model to use for cryopreservation and revival research.
The company used to experiment on dogs. As expenses have increased and animal rights activists have sought more stringent guidelines regarding research animals, the dog model has become difficult to maintain. Using rats instead may provide a host of benefits, though all animal models include some difficulties. There is currently little regulation of rats used as laboratory models. However, Alcor fully expects activists to begin targeting the use of rodents in the near future. They have therefore decided to abide by the same regulation as dogs. This means unnecessary paperwork and procedures, good practice for when such logistics are required.
The first room on the tour will house this research future. A cardiopulmonary bypass apparatus, many times smaller than similar equipment used for larger animals and humans, sits at the center of the room. Some of it has been custom built, and Alcor research associate Chana de Wolf has been practicing with this new equipment to prepare for future work on rats. There is a small cooling stage where a rat will be connected to the “Circuit”, a ring of devices like the pump and the oxygenator that act as a mechanical heart and lungs, respectively. Also attached is the “chiller” for controlling fluid temperatures. Blood will be washed out of the rat’s body with a fluid consisting of blood and various concentrations of cryopreservants and other compounds. Researcher using the rat model hope it will lead to improved cryopreservants, more effective concentrations, improved equipment and techniques, and, perhaps even the first animal revived after lengthy cryopreservation. For now, the laboratory is still being equipped with the necessary tools; research has not yet begun.
While planning to ramp up their research activities, Alcor’s primary task remains the cryopreservation of paying members. The next room on the tour is the testing site for new equipment that will automate procedures that were previously manual and time-consuming. A contractor to Alcor showed off the latest “patient pod”, an enclosed table in which the member’s body is placed upon arrival at the facility. Liquid nitrogen vapor is pumped into the pod to continue the cooling down process that began out in the field prior to the body being transported to Alcor. The body’s water is removed and replaced with chemicals that can be toxic to cells if introduced at too high a temperature. A fine balance between temperature, pressure and percent concentration of cryoprotectants will be maintained automatically by new monitoring software and equipment, replacing what use to be manual “eye-balling.” Should something go wrong, the software will immediate start appropriate countermeasures.
The new table helps consolidate steps that could previously lead to temperature increases that are not nominal, threatening the overall effectiveness of the cryopreservation. After all, for cryonics to work, further damage to the member’s body must be minimized. Presumably this care now will lead to an easier revival in the future. The new table manages a temperature drop to -100 degrees Celsius, thus cutting out a previous step that required the body be removed from the pod and onto other equipment in another room.
Improving Stabilization and Transport
As mentioned previously, there are procedures that begin prior to the arrival of a member’s body at Alcor’s Scottsdale facility. Several volunteer field technicians located around the country await that fateful call: a member has just been pronounced legally dead, or legal death is imminent. The technicians travel to the patient’s location to begin the necessary paperwork, interact with family and medical personnel, and initiate cryopreservation procedures. All of this is done as quickly as possible to minimize the brain and body damage as decomposition sets in.
Currently these technicians must carry with them seven large kits full of tools, equipment, and chemicals. The number of kits can lead to difficulties and delays when traveling, and requires significant effort to tote around. Tanya Jones – the COO of Alcor – and her team have revisited the contents of these kits to streamline them to just three. Content like freezer bags for ice, walkie talkies, batteries, medical tools, gloves, and infusion medications have been considered in detail to help minimize what needs to be included in these kits.
When deployed in the field, these kits will include a new portable ice bath that is lighter and easier to setup than the current model, while improving insulation during transport with the use of aerogel. The design is expected to accommodate new equipment that can be directly attached to the ice bath frame to maintain circulation in the body during transport, an important consideration when planning to introduce cryopreservants into the body.
Finally, a new portable perfusion system has been developed that significantly reduces the previous system’s steep learning curve. Improved with automated monitoring equipment and debubbling circuit technology, the new system now requires only two connections: one to a cold water source followed by one to the patient. This greatly simplifies the steps technicians need to take. The new system washes out the patient’s blood and begins the initial infusion of cryoprotectants. One significant size and weight reduction has been with the computer controller, a device that had not been updated since the middle of last decade.
The next room we visited was the operating room, where the current patient table and equipment reside. The heart bypass machine circulates cooled cryoprotectants while Alcor staff continue the patient’s cryopreservation. This older equipment will be replaced when design and testing of the new equipment is completed. Testing is expected to begin later this year.
The last stop in the tour was the patient care bay, the location of 76 people who have been cryopreserved since the first person – Dr. James H. Bedforf – was cryopreserved in 1967 in a dewar he designed himself. Family and volunteers maintained the dewar for the next twenty years until he was moved to Alcor. Today, five full-body cryopreserved members can fit head down in a modern dewar. Some members choose the less expensive service plan that preserves only their brain, within their head. Several of these neuropreservations fit in the center of the dewar between the full bodies.
The dewars are full of liquid nitrogen. Alcor maintains a bulk tank that holds a 4 month supply of liquid nitrogen. Liquid nitrogen can maintain its temperature at -196 degrees Celsius without power, so these dewars require no power source or backup, just the occasional automatic topping off from the bulk tank.
We did not enter the patient care bay directly but looked in through a large window. It is here that one immediately notices how Alcor is no graveyard. People speak at normal volume levels, sharing their passion for this technology and their hopes for revival after their own cryopreservation. A conference attendee from Australia finished his paperwork to become the latest member of Alcor while attendees from Quebec, Canada watched in delight. Some of the people in the tour were already signed up and happy to see the apparent effort by Alcor to continue improving cryonics technologies while preparing to mount new research efforts. Other visitors on the tour were new or prospective members seeing the technical side of cryonics for the first time. Alcor staff leading the tours remained professional despite some visible annoyance at certain personalities and questions. The staff was knowledgeable and, like everyone else in attendance that day, noticeably passionate about what they do.
Whether or not cryonics works, to some people Alcor offers something coffins and cremation urns cannot. Those final resting places are traditional and they are also final. The dewars of Alcor, on the other hand, are shiny and metal, standing tall and cold, symbols of rapidly advancing technology and optimism about the future. Here at Alcor, death seems to have been reduced to a temporary legal and cultural existence. The cryopreserved patients wait for the right repair and recovery technologies to be developed. For cryonics proponents, there is such hope, optimism and steady progress here that Alcor can be no graveyard.