Hope Springs Eternal
Is cryonics a reflection of humanity’s optimism for biomedicine, or a costly distraction?
Charlotte Barker |
A recent court case involving a terminally ill teenager has reignited the ethical and scientific debate around cryonics. The 14-year-old wanted to be cryogenically frozen after death in the hope that, one day, she could be “woken up” and cured of cancer – and she won her legal battle to ensure her wishes were followed (1).
A growing number of people are choosing to have their bodies preserved in cryonics facilities, most of them in the US. There are estimated to be more than 250 bodies already cryopreserved in the US and 1500 people who have made arrangements to be frozen on their death (2). Others choose to have only their brain frozen, hoping that future advances will make it possible to download their memories and personality into a computer. Essentially, these people are betting on the progress of science.
Who can really blame them for thinking that medicine may be in a very different place in 100 years? In this issue of The Translational Scientist, we can see just a few of the leaps that have been made in recent decades – the tools now at our disposal for genome editing, tissue engineering, and big data were entirely unimaginable 100 years ago. And it is almost impossible to predict what will be possible in the next 100...
So why are many scientists deeply sceptical about cryonics? Some advocates of the field blame stigma, saying that researchers who express support risk disapproval from colleagues and could even be thrown out of scientific societies (3). That point out that concepts such as IVF and space travel were initially ridiculed. As Michael West recounts on page 32, science is not immune to fads and fashions, with aging research going from being the preserve of “kooks” to one of the hottest fields in biomedicine.
But there may be a simpler explanation for the lack of enthusiasm for cryopreservation from the scientific community; though the vitrification techniques used in cryonics are routinely applied to freeze and thaw tissue samples and embryos, there is simply no evidence that whole humans or organs can tolerate the same treatment. Even if the body could be reanimated, there remains the not insignificant challenge of reversing the original cause of death.
Ultimately, the case for cryonics hinges on hope. Is any hope – however tenuous – better than none? What are the ethical implications of selling (often at great cost) what may well prove to be false hope?
Whether you believe its proponents are optimists or fools, charlatans or visionaries, cryonics represents the ultimate expression of hope for the future of biomedical science.
- BBC News, “Terminally ill teen won historic ruling to preserve body” (2016). Available at: bbc.in/2eLDYRH.
- OM Moen, “The case for cryonics”. J Med Ethics, 41, 493–503 (2015). PMID: 25717141.
- A Topping, “Cryonics debate: ‘Many scientists are afraid to hurt their careers’”, The Guardian (2016). Available at: bit.ly/2g9chlH