The environment was a change for Drake, who had spent the previous seven years as director of medical response for the Alcor Life Extension Foundation. Although it was the long-time leader in cryonics, Alcor was still a small non-profit organization. He had been freezing the bodies and brains of his members, with the idea of bringing them back to life one day, since 1976.
The foundation, and cryonics in general, had long survived outside of mainstream acceptance. Usually shunned by the scientific community, cryonics is best known for its appearance in science fiction films such as 2001: A space odyssey. But his followers have clung to the dream that at some point in the future, medical advances will allow resuscitation and extra years on Earth. For decades, small, tantalizing developments in related technology, as well as high-profile frozen test subjects like Ted Williams, have kept hope alive. Today, nearly 200 dead patients are frozen in Alcor’s cryogenic chambers at temperatures of -196°C, including a handful of celebrities, who have paid tens of thousands of dollars for the goal of “possible rebirth” and, in short, “reintegration into society”.
But it’s Yinfeng’s recent involvement that signals a new era for cryonics. With impressive financial resources, government support and scientific staff, it is one of the few new labs focused on broadening the consumer appeal of cryonics and trying to bring credibility back to the much-disputed theory of human resuscitation. Just a year after Drake joined as research director of the Shandong Yinfeng Life Sciences Research Institute, the subsidiary of the Yinfeng Biological Group that oversees the cryonics program, the institute conducted his first cryopreservation. His storage vats now have a dozen customers who pay more than $200,000 to preserve the entire body.
Still, the field remains rooted in faith rather than any real evidence that it works. “It’s a hopeless aspiration that reveals an appalling ignorance of biology,” says Clive Coen, a neuroscientist and professor at King’s College London.
Even if one day you could perfectly thaw a frozen human body, you’d still have a warm dead body in your hands.
The cryonics process usually goes something like this: After a person dies, a response team begins the process of cooling the corpse to a low temperature and performs cardiopulmonary support to maintain blood flow to the brain and organs. The body is then moved to a cryonics facility, where an organ preservation solution is pumped through the veins before the body is submerged in liquid nitrogen. This process should begin within an hour of death: the longer the wait, the greater the damage to the body’s cells. Then, once the frozen corpse is installed in the cryogenic chamber, the hope of the dead begins.
Since its inception in the late 1960s, the field has drawn opprobrium from the scientific community, particularly its more respectable cousin cryobiology—the study of how freezing and low temperatures affect living organisms and biological materials. The Society for Cryobiology even banned its members from participating in cryonics in the 1980s, with a former president of the society criticizing the field as closer to “fraud than faith or science.” .
In recent years, however, it has caught the attention of the techno-optimistic libertarian crowd, mostly tech moguls who dream of their own immortality. And a number of new startups are widening the playing field. Tomorrow Biostasis in Berlin became the first cryonics company in Western Europe in 2019, for example, and in early 2022, Southern Cryonics opened a facility in Australia.
“More researchers are open to long-term futuristic topics than there might have been 20 or so years ago,” says Tomorrow Biostasis founder Emil Kendziorra.