The environment was something of a change for Drake, who had spent the previous seven years as medical response director for the Alcor Life Extension Foundation. While it had long been the leader in cryonics, Alcor was still a small nonprofit. Since 1976, it had frozen the bodies and brains of its members, with the idea of one day bringing them back to life.
The foundation, and cryonics in general, had long survived beyond mainstream adoption. Typically shunned by the scientific community, cryonics is best known for its appearance in sci-fi movies such as 2001: A space odyssey. But his supporters have held onto a dream that at some point in the future, advances in medicine will allow for resuscitation and extra years on Earth. For decades, small, tantalizing advances in related technology, as well as high-profile frozen subjects like Ted Williams, have kept hopes alive. Today, nearly 200 dead patients are frozen in Alcor’s cryogenic chambers at temperatures as low as -196°C, including a handful of celebrities, who have paid tens of thousands of dollars for the purpose of “possible revival” and ultimately “reintegration into society”.
But it’s Yinfeng’s recent involvement that signals something of a new era for cryonics. With impressive funding, government support, and scientific staff, it is one of the few new labs focused on increasing the appeal of cryonics to consumers and retrying to give credibility to the long-disputed theory of human resuscitation. Just a year after Drake came on board as research director of the Shandong Yinfeng Life Science Research Institute, the subsidiary of the Yinfeng Biological Group that oversees the cryonics program, the institute conducted its first cryopreservation. The storage vessels now hold about a dozen customers who pay more than $200,000 to preserve the entire body.
Yet the field remains rooted in belief rather than any real evidence that it works. “It’s a hopeless endeavor that reveals an appalling ignorance about biology,” said 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 corpse on your hands.
The cryonics process usually goes something like this: Upon a person’s death, a response team begins the process of cooling the corpse to a low temperature and performs cardiopulmonary support to aid blood flow to the brain and organs. Then the body is taken to a cryonic device, 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 cadaver is nestled in the cryogenic chamber, the hope for the dead begins.
Since its beginnings in the late 1960s, the field has attracted disgrace 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 involvement in cryonics in the 1980s, with a former president of the society labeling the field closer to “fraud than faith or science.”
In recent years, however, it has caught the attention of the libertarian techno-optimistic crowd, mostly tech moguls dreaming of their own immortality. And a number of new startups are expanding the playing field. For example, Tomorrow Biostasis in Berlin became the first cryonics company in Western Europe in 2019 and Southern Cryonics opened a branch in Australia in early 2022.
“More researchers are open to longer-term futuristic topics than they were twenty years ago,” said Emil Kendziorra, founder of Tomorrow Biostasis.