Walt Disney, who had lung cancer, dreamed of prolonging his existence beyond death and asked his loved ones to freeze his body after he died (he died in 1966). He wanted to be the first person to be cryopreserved, believing that one day, when medical advances made it possible, doctors could wake him up and he could go back to how he used to be. At that time many people believed in that utopia. Nowadays some still think Disney is being kept at minus 196 degrees in an aluminium capsule, waiting for science to give him back his life, but in fact it never happened. His family considered it to be an infantile fantasy, and had him cremated. So, Walt wasn't a pioneer in cryotherapy after all.
That position is actually held by James Bedford, who died on 12 January 1967. Minutes before breathing his last breath, this psychology professor placed himself in the hands of the recently constituted Cryonics Society of California, persuaded that a scientific advance would bring him back into this world again. Fifty-one years later, the miracle has not happened... "yet", say those who have blind faith in a technique, as experimental as it is controversial, which "will be totally viable within a few years".
One of these is Albert Estrada, the medical director of Cecryon, a company in Valencia which will be the first in Europe to offer a corpse cryopreservation service. "We have sufficient arguments to think that cryopreserved people will be recuperated one day," he says. The main one is scientific and technological evolution. In the case of cryopreservation, the difficulties lie in technical problems derived from the large size of an adult human body. About 30 years ago they started to cryopreserve bull sperm, then ovules and embryos, and today they can vitrify and then recover a sheep's ovary or rabbit's kidney with biological viability. Next it will be a whole rabbit, then a cat, a pig and finally a human. "We will recover the patients when the medical techniques exist to bring them back to life in full health," says Estrada.
A money-making exercise
They don't see it like that at the Observatory of Bioethics and Law at the University of Barcelona. On the contrary, they consider this to be just another money-making exercise which generates false expectations because "there is no scientific, legal or ethical guarantee" to sustain it.
Obtaining a 'passport' for a hypothetical second life isn't cheap. The client has to pay 200,000 euros while they are alive, and the success of the procedure, say those who have introduced it in Spain, will depend on the speed with which it is carried out after death.
"Once declared clinically dead, the individual's tissues start to be damaged through the effect of hypoxia," explains Estrada, who is a specialist in clinical biochemistry. "When the heart stops beating, oxygen doesn't reach the organs and the brain is more sensitive to this deficit. It is crucial to keep the blood flowing, lower the body temperature with water and ice and inject heparin to stop the formation of clots which obstruct the vascular tree and later stop us administering cryoprotective substances". This is a type of anticoagulant designed to stop crystals forming.
The procedure has to be carried out extremely slowly in order to avoid fractures; it can take up to five days. Cecryon plans to carry it out at a specially prepared 1,500-square-metre facility at the private Parque San Jaime de Ribarroja crematorium, in Valencia. The company has invested more than one million euros in it and says two clients already have their cryocapsules prepared. There they will remain 'sine die' in liquid nitrogen, in the hope of coming back to life one day. If that were to happen, what condition would they be in when they returned to the world? Would they remember their previous life?
Estrada has no doubts. "They will retain all their memory," he insists. "These days scientists vitrify and recover small worms who have previously been trained to look for food in a particular place and after passing through the process they still remember what they had learned. We also know of people whose hearts have stopped for more than two hours and had no brain activity, whose memories and personality remained intact after they recover."
The Spanish Bioethics Society doesn't believe the example of the worm can be extrapolated to a human being, "when we have 200 different types of cells and millions of them in our bodies," insists Francisco José Ramiro. "What is really complicated is that those cells don't die during the freezing, and at present there is no experimental evidence about the freezing and unfreezing processes. From a medical point of view, this can't be taken seriously, and from the ethical angle, it is playing on people's wishes for survival".
Cryopreservation itself is not new. About 350 people in the USA have been cryopreserved, and about 500 in Russia. Estrada is convinced that his business will be successful, "because we are the only viable alternative once current medical technology can do nothing more for the patient," he says.
A family passion
Albert grew up in this field because his father, Luis Estrada, is the president of the Spanish Cryonics Society. He is aware of misgivings in the medical profession. "I don't want to convert anyone or sell the product to anybody; anyone who wants to die can die," he says.
Spanish legislation does not include any specific rules regarding cryogenisation with a view to bringing people back to life when the illness which caused their death can be cured. A decree from 1974 says there are three options when somebody dies: burial in an authorised site, cremation or immersion out at sea.
However, Albert Estrada says regional rules in Valencia recognise that a body can be preserved. "We are licenced as a crematorium and the authorities only ask us to have an oven available for sanitary purposes. We will never use it, but they think it is needed in case a corpse putrefies and has to be incinerated," he says. Ribarroja del Turia town hall, however, says the company is only licenced for cremation.
"If they want to provide a cryopreservation service, they'll have to apply to the Health Ministry for an expanded licence. With that documentation, we will ask the regional government what technical requirements the project will have to fulfil in order for us to grant them the permit. At the moment, though, they don't have that permission," insists the mayor, Roberto Raga.
Cryopreservation consists of lowing the temperature of the human body to minus 130 degrees, extracting the blood and substituting it with a cryogenic liquid, a type of antifreeze, to preserve it. Then, it is placed in a capsule with liquid nitrogen. The idea is to keep it there until medicine has found a cure for the illness which caused the death.
"The objective is for the person to come back to life in a perfect state of health," says Albert Estrada, of Cecryon.