Rat Study Revives Hopes for Cryonics; Then Interest Cools
Firms that keep bodies on Ice Nab Publicity, Not Clients; Skin Flakes in a bed sheet
by Michael Moss, The Wall Street Journal Jan 31, 1996
As the millenium approaches, the "life-extension" industry is getting plenty of attention. But this turns out to be a cold comfort for entrepreneurs like Paul Wakfer.
Mr. Wakfer is president of CryoSpan, Inc., a Rancho Cucamonga, Calif., concern that practices cryonics. This means people pay him to keep their bodies frozen after they die, in the hopes that medical science will find a way to bring them back to life someday, memories and capabilities intact.
Cryonics has been a subject of fascination for more than three decades, ever since former community-college teacher Robert Ettinger introduced the concept in his 1964 book The Prospect of Immortality. Diring the past five years, interest has intensified, with more than 100 articles and television reports each year on the topic. Despite all this, it turns out that very few people are willing to put their own bodies on the line.
Business Is Slow
World-wide, the iced-cody count stands at a scant 70 - not including Walt Disney, long rumored, falsely, to be among them. (In fact, a Disney spokesman says, he was creamated, and his ashes are preserved at a cemetery in Southern California.)
For Mr. Wakfer, who charges $1500 a year to maintain a whole body, $250 just for a head and $200 for a brain, business is distinctly disappointing. "My current year's income -- I just totaled the invoices -- is $8200," Mr. Wakfer says. "That's $8200 gross."
Others in the field -- even the premium-priced Alcor Life Extension Foundation Inc., a not-for-profit that charges $120,000 for perpetual cold storage -- also are discouraged. Among potential clients, religious objections abound. There are also some pretty daunting scientific obstacles. Most basically, no on knows if it will ever be scientifically possible to revive a frozen corpse. Cloning a new body from a frozen head or brain may be even more farfetched.
'It Never Works'
"Every few months, someone comes along with a plan to make this popular," syas Brian Shock, membership administrator for Alcor, in Scottsdale, Ariz. But, he laments, "It never works."
Which may be why the cryonics community got so very excited recently about the exploits of a group of South African rats.
Late in 1995, researchers at the University of Pretoria in South Africa submitted a scientific paper for publication in the British journal Cryobiology. The journal focuses on the cooling of human tissue for scientific and medical purposes, including surgery and organ transplants. The researchers said they had extracted rats' hearts, injected them with a secret protective solution, cooled them to minus 320 degrees Fahrenheit for as long as 45 minutes and them slowly thawed them out. The result: The hearts started beating again.
While a far cry from reviving a dead human, not to mention making productive use of a frozen head, the rat experiments had an energizing effect on the cryonics advocates. Though the article was unpublished, word of it spread quickly. Last September, Alcor brought one of the researchers, Olga Visser, to Scottsdale for a demonstration.
People who were there say that she succeeded in reviving a rat's heart that had been frozen for 90 seconds. Among some dozen cryonics die-hards, the demonstration produced gasps and even tears, Alcor's Mr. Shock syas. "Feelings were runing pretty high," he recalls.
Alcor quickly reported the development on its web page under the headline, "Press Release: Breakthrough!" It termed the experiment a "running start" toward proof that cryonics could work. And it noted that Ms. Visser's research paper was under consideration by Cryobiology.
Since then, however, doubts have surfaced. It turns out that Cryobiology had rejected the manuscript months before Ms. Visser's visit to Arizona, says the journal's editor, David Pegg. He adds that the research wasn't backed by sufficient data and didn't advance knowledge in the field.
Alcor, which keeps 33 human bodies and heads in perpetual storage, tried but failed to replicate the experiment with rats of its own. And the south African government recently halted unrelated AIDS research in which Ms. Visser and colleagues were involved, pending an investigation of what other scientists have claimed are unorthodox research methods.
Calls to Mr. Visser were referred to Larry Heiderbrecht, a spokesman for a private concern that Ms. Visser and her partners have created to market their research. He said Ms. Visser stands by all her work and still hopes to get the rat study published.
In fact, she is scheduled to try her demonstration again at a conference, dubbed the "Advancing Cryonics TEchnology Festival," sponsored by Alcor in Scottsdale this weekend.
"It's either a curiosity or it might turn out to be a learning path," Alcor's outgoing president, Stephen Bridge, now says of the rat work. "I've been in cryonics 20 years,. While there have been improvements, a lot of things you think are going to take off don't."
Meanwhile, interest is shifting to research at fast-growing biotech concern BioTime Inc., in Berkeley, Calif. In the course of working on a blood substitute for organ transplants and cold-temperature surgery, the company has been plunging golden hamsters into a freezing bath, then turning up the heat. "We can get a decent percentage of these guys back," says Paul Segall, the company president. "You warm them up and, lo and behold, they breathe again. You can squeeze their paw and they'll respond. They'll even walk around."
Even so, Mr., Wakfer isn't expecting any significant spike in business. Instead, he is building his clientele a little bit at a time. Last months, he accepted a client who apparently has disappeared mysteriously. "There's good reason to believe he's dead," Mr. Wakfer says. "There were hairs and skin flakes on the bed sheets, so we just rolled up the sheets and froze those."
Mr. Wakfer is charging a flat fee of $1000 to keep them on ice. A friend of the client wanted to do this, Mr. Wakfer explains, "to have at least a clone of that person around again."
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