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Dying’s deep freeze option nearer as cryonics backers push for Australian site

Australians will soon be able to pay to have their bodies put into deep freeze after they die in the hope that advances in medical science will one day allow them to be revived.

Words by Rachel Furolo
 
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The prospect is edging towards reality with the country’s first cryogenic freezing facility, to be located on the Hume Highway between Albury and Sydney, expected to be operational within 12 months, according to its backers.

Finding suitable land had delayed the project. However, the not-for-profit Stasis Systems Australia says it is now in the process of purchasing a site that has met all its requirements, which is set to become the fourth cryonics facility in the world.  

The selected regional location is expected to be safe from bushfire and other natural disasters, and close to a liquid nitrogen delivery route. 

The secretary of Stasis Systems, 31-year-old software engineer Matt Fisher, is confident that the facility will now be able to be completed.  

“We’re very excited and hope to make impressive progress building the facility this year, potentially being able to accept clients by the end of the year,”  Mr Fisher told The Citizen

“[I]t seems inevitable to me that medical science will eventually reach a stage where it understands all aspects of the body well enough to fix anything that goes wrong with it, such as injury, disease or the degenerative effects of ageing.” — Matt Fisher, cryonics advocate

Stasis Systems, which has signed up 10 people for the procedure including its own executives, says it will be able to take someone who has recently died and keep them in liquid nitrogen until medical science is able to “restore them to full health”.  

In order for this to occur, a medical team would ideally be on stand-by when a person is declared dead, and immediately replace their blood with a cryoprotectant solution to safeguard cells and tissues from damage during freezing.

The patient would then be cooled in an ice bath and transported to the cryonics facility, where the cooling would continue over several days in a vessel that uses nitrogen vapour. 

When the liquid nitrogen temperature reaches minus 196 degrees Celsius, the patient would then be lowered into another large vessel of liquid nitrogen, where they would remain until medical science was able to bring them back to life.

While concerns had previously arisen over the possibility of ice forming between the dead person’s cells, Stasis Systems says it plans adopting a method called vitrification, used since 2000 by both cryonics organisations operating in the US that involves the use of cryoprotectants.

“Fluid molecules slow down more and more until they just stop in place, making the tissue more like glass than like ice,” said Mr Fisher.

The service is expected to be offered for a one-off payment of $70,000, which includes the initial cost of suspension itself, plus the ongoing cost of liquid nitrogen replenishment. 

“A heart transplant costs several hundred thousand dollars and can impart maybe 20 additional years of life, though that is certainly not guaranteed,” said Mr Fisher. “A cryonic suspension has the potential to allow many decades or even hundreds of years of additional life, though it is much less certain to work.” 

Prospective clients are made fully aware of that qualification, according to Mr Fisher, and that the likelihood of someone being revived after they have been cryogenically frozen may depend ultimately on the condition of their body at the time they were frozen. 

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“The better condition a patient is in, and the sooner the procedure starts, the better their chances are of being revived in the future,” he continued. “For example, someone who has suffered severe trauma to the brain, or who died at home and was not discovered for a time, would have minimal chance of future revival.” 

Clients sign a personalised suspension plan reflecting their wishes, which can include putting a cap on the length of time they wish to be kept suspended. They could, for example, set a time limit after which any remaining funds from their investment would be returned to their descendants or to charity.

While cryonics as a life-prolonging method has been met with scepticism by many scientists, Mr Fisher argues that these views are often based on current scientific thinking rather than with future technology in mind. Cryonics has never claimed to be able to revive a patient now, but its advocates argue that the science necessary for doing so will likely be available in the future. 

“Vitrification technology has been proven viable by freezing and then thawing a rabbit kidney before implanting it back into the rabbit, and it worked as normal,” Mr Fisher said.

“Scaling this up to work confidently and reliably for whole humans is a matter of time and development. This might take 50, 100 or 200 years, but we’ll get there eventually.” 

Stasis Systems has 10 initial members, who have pre-paid for their own cryonic suspension, and claims to have had interest from several more who it expects to sign up once the facility is operational. They include Mr Fisher’s family, who decided to invest by pre-paying for their suspension. 

Mr Fisher first became interested in cryonics while studying mechatronic engineering at university, learning that if there is something wrong with a system and it cannot be fixed, that this is only because the system isn’t understood well enough or the tools are not yet available to change it. 

“Looking at the human body as such a system, it seems inevitable to me that medical science will eventually reach a stage where it understands all aspects of the body well enough to fix anything that goes wrong with it, such as injury, disease or the degenerative effects of ageing,” said Mr Fisher. 

He joined Stasis Systems Australia after meeting its founders, Mark Milton and Peter Tsolakides, who were spruiking for investors at a meeting of the Cryonics Association of Australia, an organisation that supports people looking to arrange their cryopreservation overseas. 

He decided to volunteer as secretary and also the public face of Stasis Systems in the hope of making cryonics a topic of mainstream conversation. 

Mr Fisher said that it was difficult to estimate if and when cryonic suspension might become commonplace in Australia, as it would require more of an attitudinal shift than a scientific one.

“I hope to increase the popularity of cryonics as an internment choice compared to burial and cremation over the next 10 to 20 years, since the more popular and accepted it becomes, the more interest there will be in advancing the science needed to revive those who have chosen it,” he said. 

“Cryonics is a last-chance medical intervention that you undergo once all other options have been tried and have failed. At that point, you have nothing left to lose.”

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THE CITIZEN is a publication of the Centre for Advancing Journalism. It has several aims. Foremost, it is a teaching tool that showcases the work of the students in the University of Melbourne’s Master of Journalism and Master of International Journalism programs, giving them real-world experience in working for publication and to deadline. Find out more →

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