Down the Hume Highway in New South Wales sits a tiny rural town, best known for its merino wool production. Holbrook has more livestock than residents but soon, if all goes according to plan, it’ll also be home to Australia’s first cryonics facility — making a few of those residents of the chilled variety.
Cryonics is the practice of freezing deceased humans at a low temperature in the hope future scientific advances could bring them back to life. It’s a popular idea in science fiction, forming the basis of video games like The Outer Worlds and the Fallout series, and Hollywood movies such as Passengers.
But Australia’s Southern Cryonics Institute, which is building the facility in country New South Wales, is hoping to give its believers something a little closer to reality.
Holbrook might not seem like the obvious first choice for a freezer warehouse for the deceased but Peter Tsolakides, Southern Cryonics Institute’s director, explained it was a nice middle ground between Australia’s biggest cities — Melbourne and Sydney.
More importantly though, it was just a 40-minute drive from Albury–Wodonga on the Victorian-New South Wales border, which is home to producers of the liquid nitrogen needed to suspend the bodies.
Peter said while this was crucial to operations, Holbrook offered up other features that made it a no brainer too.
“The land has a history of no flooding, seismic activity, and other similar natural disasters. We are clear of potential bush fire hazards as well. Well, as best as we can be,” Peter said.
“The land around us is cleared, we are in a town and we have a fire station next door.”
All that was left was to complete building the facility and fill the cryonic tanks up with willing participants.
Cryonics says death might not be forever
The idea of a life after death is by no means a novel concept. It’s been intrinsic to human civilisations and ideologies for thousands of years — from the ancient Egyptians to the Abrahamic religions that still exist today.
Cyronics isn’t about following a set of doctrines during life, but it does share a common tenet with modern-day religions – death isn’t finite.
Elphie Coyle is one of Southern Cryonics’ founding members. The chance at a new life is one of the primary reasons he’s exploring cryonics.
“For all I know, it’s a five per cent chance of it working and me coming back,” Coyle told Gizmodo Australia over the phone.
“I’ll still take that five per cent chance … I still hope there’s an afterlife, but I can’t be sure so why not extend this amazing thing for as long as possible?”
Elphie was once a devout Christian, but struggled with the lack of evidence pointing to an afterlife. He eventually came across the idea of cryonics and felt like it ‘clicked’ for him.
In 1965, Intel founder Gordon Moore predicted technological capacity would continue to double every two years — known as Moore’s Law — which has thus far been proved correct. Given the technological landscape for progress and innovation, Elphie thought, why couldn’t something like the puzzle of cryonics eventually be solved too?
The concept is not entirely far-fetched. In 2005, a study undertaken at the U.S. Safar Center for Resuscitation Research tested an alternative method to CPR, called emergency preservation and resuscitation (EPR), to help increase survival rates of emergency room patients.
In the study, researchers replaced the blood of 14 dogs with a chilled saline solution until the animals’ body temperatures registered about 10 degrees Celsius. The dogs went into cardiac arrest and were declared clinically dead.
After a few hours, the researchers began warming the dogs’ bodies back up and replacing the saline solution with their blood. Five of the 14 dogs returned to life and regained their normal health, four were left with moderate-to-severe disabilities, two lapsed into comas and two ultimately died.
The surviving dogs were dubbed “zombie dogs” but it was the first sign suspended animation was a possibility. Fast forward to November 2019 and one of the researchers on the 2005 study, Samuel Tisherman, had done it again – but this time it was with humans.
In an article with New Scientist, Tisherman said he had used the method on at least one human patient, but wouldn’t reveal how many people had survived the method. Tisherman’s EPR method is reserved for emergency room patients suffering acute trauma, who will likely die without such intervention.
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration has given the green light for the trials to go ahead without patient consent given their injuries are likely to be fatal. It’s expected the results of the trial will be published by the end of 2020.
The methods Tisherman and his team are evaluating are not intended to save those hoping to live an extended life. Still, it’s these sorts of developments that give Elphie hope he’s backing a winning horse.
“These technologies are coming,” Elphie said.
“To me, it’s more of an insurance. In the case of something going really wrong and we happen to be suspended for quite a while or, you know, something happens to me personally, then [cryonics allows me] to be around … these technologies allow us to really change the way we look at humanity and life itself.”
There’s just one giant caveat for all this — the scientific community thinks the whole idea is quackery.
Science can suspend cells but whole human bodies is another ball game
‘Cryonics’ is a bit of a dirty word in the scientific community. While the idea of suspending a human is a popular trope in the sci-fi genre, real-world scientists dismiss it.
Professor Gary Bryant, an expert in cryobiology at RMIT University, explained cryonics was not recognised by the Society for Cryobiology — an international society of scientists dedicated to better understanding cryobiology.
“[Cryonicists] cool the body very slowly, replacing bodily fluids with a cocktail of chemicals,” Professor Bryant told Gizmodo Australia over email.
“The chemicals used in the cryonics process are very toxic — most of the cell membranes in the body will be destroyed by the chemicals. This process is like embalming — it makes the tissue look whole, but inside everything is destroyed. When thawed everything rapidly disintegrates.”
If the chemicals don’t kill the cells, Professor Bryant said freezing them surely would. Ice forms inside frozen cells and causes dehydration damage from the water being converted to ice – but the ice crystals themselves can damage the cell’s membrane.
It’s not to say things can’t be preserved cryonically. In fact, cryopreservation is a whole field dedicated to the cause. But it’s a lot more complicated than whacking a human body in a freezer.
“In the science of cryopreservation, protocols have been developed to preserve a number of cell types, however, the protocols are different for each cell type,” Professor Bryant said.
Therein lies the issue for scientists — while single cells can be cryopreserved, a whole human body is full of many different types, all needing their own treatment.
Professor Bryant said red blood cells needed glycerol and a rapid freezing from room temperature to well below zero. White blood cells, on the other hand, need a special chemical protectant and to be cooled gradually over 10 minute periods.
“At present, only a small number of the hundreds of cell types found in the body can be successfully cryopreserved,” Professor Bryant said.
“Even if it were possible, following many decades of research, to successfully cryopreserve every type of cell in the body, you would physically have to separate them out — put the body in a blender — to do so.”
It’s a pretty damning indictment of the technology. But it doesn’t address a crucial tenet of cryonics — hope that future scientific breakthroughs have the solutions to these problems.
Living forever costs more than an arm and a leg
When it comes to the process of freezing yourself for the future you have two choices — your whole body or just your head.
International organisations, like Alcor and Cryonics Institute in the United States, offer the latter option for a reduced price.
However, Australia’s Southern Cryonics Institute will just be sticking with full-body suspension.
Naturally, that process isn’t cheap. It costs $150,000 for whole-body suspension with an ongoing yearly subscription fee of $350. Included in the cost is the “process of bringing the patient to liquid nitrogen temperatures and long-term storage”.
It might sound like a monstrous amount, but Elphie said he had given much more to the church in tithes over the years. For him, the fee is a reasonable amount for a shot at a potential second life.
“It’s the price of eternal life — not necessarily eternal life because that’s a harder sell — but a severely extended life,” Elphie said. He preferred the idea of visiting a freezer to see his own relatives in a preserved state rather than traditional burial and after-death practices.
“I would want to honour my father — even if he never came back — and to be able to have him be preserved as best as possible,” Elphie said.
Peter explained the whole setup was relatively easy and that experts were only need for the initial suspension process.
The deceased customers would be administered the saline solution and gradually cooled to temperatures below zero. They’d then be stored in large steel containers — like large thermos flasks, he added — which are filled with liquid nitrogen.
“After that, the patient is basically in liquid nitrogen for centuries, if need be,” Tsolakides said in an email, adding their liquid nitrogen would be topped up weekly.
Once the building is fully constructed, expected some time in early 2021, the facility will house up to 40 containers for human suspension. Southern Cryonics indicates there are 27 founders with guaranteed spots, meaning there’s vacancy for 13 more. It projects there will be demand for 600 patients within one hundred years’ time but it has plans to expand the facility in order to accommodate them.
By then, one would hope some advancements have been made.