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Thursday, 18 July, 2002, 14:17 GMT 15:17 UK
Cryonics: Freezing for the future?
The legal battle over the future of the frozen body of late US baseball star Ted Williams has thrust the controversial process of cryonic freezing into the spotlight.
Cryonics effectively involves having your dead body or brain placed in cold storage in the hope that scientists will one day develop the ability to restore life and vitality.
Cryonics began in the United States in 1967, when Dr James Bedford became the first person to be preserved after his death. The first commercial cryonics services started operating in the 1970s.
In addition to Ted Williams, a number of other notable figures have reportedly expressed an interest in cryonics, including Walt Disney, actor Peter Sellers, Muhammed Ali and authors Gore Vidal and Arthur C Clarke.
Billing itself as a "Life Extension Foundation", leading cryonics company Alcor invites visitors to its website to "imagine the possibility of more life".
According to Alcor, more than 100 people have been frozen since 1967, while about 1,000 people across the world have made financial and legal arrangements to be frozen in case of terminal illness or fatal injury.
Alcor's UK branch informs potential immortalists: "The average age of our members is around 35, but ages range from 16 to 60.
"We are normal people who just love life and want more of it," they claim.
To be cryonically frozen you need to have money and be legally declared dead.
Alcor's price list starts at $58,000 to have your brain frozen - a neuro-suspension - rising to $125,000 for a full body preservation.
Simon Hancock,41, has signed up for a neuro-suspension with Alcor, and told BBC News Online that he wanted to return to life "healthy and young again".
"I can't really see the benefit of dying. It occurred to me one day that in the future, it will come under our control.
"In the future it will be reversible and I'm greatly encouraged by how science has changed. People used to laugh at me for saying I want to be frozen, but now it seems much more reasonable."
Cryonic freezing involves using liquid nitrogen to cool the body until the process of molecular decay of a dead person's cells stops.
After death, Alcor clients are placed inside tall steel cylinders at the company's laboratory complex in Scottsdale, Arizona.
Operating on the same principle as a vacuum flask, each cylinder has a double wall which insulates the interior.
Four bodies are held in each container, surrounded by liquid nitrogen, which keeps the temperature at a constant -196 degrees Centigrade.
A central column running up the inside of each chamber holds clients who have opted just to have their heads preserved. As no electricity is needed to keep the bodies frozen, there is no risk of premature defrosting in the event of a power cut.
Cryonics protagonists believe that scientists will have made huge strides in life restoring and body regeneration techniques within 50 to 100 years.
They suggest that recent advances in the field of nanotechnology will allow scientists to rebuild bodies damaged by the effects of disease and old age.
They also point to the recent breakthroughs in the freezing and revival of human tissue as evidence that a second roll of the dice through cryonics may not be such a distant dream.
But many scientists and doctors are unconvinced and say cryonics is deeply flawed.
"Cryonics is the stuff of fantasy, it is not based on any evidence, Professor David Pegg of the UK's York University told BBC News Online:
"The problem cryonics has is that they're taking someone who is dead and freezing them in a way which destroys the body's cells.
"In mammalian tissue, ice forms at quite a 'high' temperature, causing massive damage to the complicated cell structures which make up the internal organs.
"Not only have they got to find a way of bringing them back to life, they've got to repair the massive damage that death, or any injuries before death have caused.
Professor Pegg believes that cryonics is the latest version of what has been a recurrent cultural process throughout history, and suggested that ancient Egyptian mummies may have been intended to fulfil the same purpose of granting life after death.
"Its problematical though because the current manifestation of this is presented as a scientific activity when it certainly isn't, he said.
"Cryonics defence is that scientists do not know what may be possible in the future - but nor do they, no one does, it's a zero argument.
"Nobody can say that it'll never be possible, but there is certainly no indication that it ever will be at the moment."
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