Freezing makes you immortal

The dream of immortality 50 years of cryostasis: freezing, thawing, survival

Pausing life, freezing it, and years later simply thawing it, waking up and living on: This motif is a permanent fixture in numerous science fiction novels. In the stories, the heroes are often put into cryostasis for long journeys through space.

Immortality is an ancient dream of mankind, says the physician Dominik Groß. "The finitude of human beings is the last and greatest hurt of human beings and thus, so to speak, the last goal that can still be achieved." Groß heads the Institute for History, Theory and Ethics in Medicine at RWTH Aachen University. The professor has given lectures on cryonics, the freezing of biomaterials or whole people.

Because even in the real world, people can be frozen and have been freezing for 50 years. It all started with the American James Bedford, who was frozen on January 12, 1964 a few hours after his death. Bedford's body has been in a metal tank at minus 190 degrees since then. His followers think that one day he could come back - to life.

I think this is completely unrealistic because, on the one hand, cryonics cannot deliver what it promises anyway. On the other hand, because Bedford was preserved 50 years ago. A completely different technique was used back then. That means: the technical requirements were much worse back then than they are today.

Dominik Groß, professor of medicine

Freezing destroys the body

Even today the technical problems are manifold. Crystals can form in the body when it freezes. The tissue bursts like a water bottle that has been forgotten in the freezer. That is why the blood was replaced by antifreeze at Bedford, which in turn is poisonous. And - adds Dominik Groß - there was a reason why the frozen person died. With Bedford it was a tumor. "Even if it were possible to revive an entire human organism - which I think is unrealistic - then one would have to go ahead and make sure that all cells are rejuvenated in order to avoid the dying process from starting again," says Groß.

But even if serious scientists think it is nonsense to freeze whole people. In other areas, cryonics has long been a reality. One example of this is the Vita34 company in Leipzig. All in all, around 145,000 metal cassettes are stored there in dozens of tanks. The cassettes contain umbilical cord blood and tissue with stem cells from newborns. 25 years of storage cost 3,400 euros. Parents who spend so much money want to give their children every opportunity for the future. For example, if one day the cartilage in the child's knee is worn out, it should be possible to grow new cartilage from the stem cells. Vita 34 CEO André Gerth advertises such applications.

What we do is that we are already storing very good biological material today. Because we are convinced that at a time when people are born today need it, medical advances can offer a wide range of such stem cell-based applications.

André Gerth, CEO Vita 34

The stem cell depot has already been accessed in around 30 cases. But most therapies are still being researched and they should not be available for a few years. Vita 34 guarantees that the cells in the tanks can be stored for years and can be thawed again without damage. André Gerth believes in this business. "Cryogenics certainly has tremendous future prospects. Today, it has only been possible to store cells or very thin tissues very reliably." In contrast, he considers the idea of ​​freezing whole people, as with Bedford, to be a long way off.

on the radio | 01/12/2017 | 12.40 p.m.