The environment was something of a shift for Drake, who had spent the previous seven years as the medical response director of the Alcor Life Extension Foundation. Though it was the longtime leader in cryonics, Alcor was still a small nonprofit. It had been freezing the bodies and brains of its members, with the idea of one day bringing them back to life, since 1976.
The foundation, and cryonics in general, had long survived outside of mainstream acceptance. Typically shunned by the scientific community, cryonics is best known for its appearance in sci-fi films like 2001: A Space Odyssey. But its adherents have held on to a dream that at some point in the future, advances in medicine will allow for resuscitation and additional years on Earth. Over decades, small, tantalizing developments in related technology, as well as high-profile frozen test subjects like Ted Williams, have kept the hope alive. Today, nearly 200 dead patients are frozen in Alcor’s cryogenic chambers at temperatures of −196 °C, including a handful of celebrities, who have paid tens of thousands of dollars for the goal of “possible revival” and ultimately “reintegration into society.”
But it’s the recent involvement of Yinfeng that signals something of a new era for cryonics. With impressive financial resources, government support, and scientific staff, it’s one of a handful of new labs focused on expanding the consumer appeal of cryonics and trying anew to bring credibility to the long-disputed theory of human reanimation. Just a year after Drake came on board as research director of the Shandong Yinfeng Life Science Research Institute, the subsidiary of the Yinfeng Biological Group overseeing the cryonics program, the institute performed its first cryopreservation. Its storage vats now hold about a dozen clients who are paying upwards of $200,000 to preserve the whole body.
Still, the field remains rooted in faith rather than any real evidence that it works. “It’s a hopeless aspiration that reveals an appalling ignorance of biology,” says Clive Coen, a neuroscientist and professor at King’s College London.
Even if one day you could perfectly thaw a frozen human body, you would still just have a warm dead body on your hands.
The cryonics process typically goes something like this: Upon a person’s death, a response team begins the process of cooling the corpse to a low temperature and performs cardiopulmonary support to sustain blood flow to the brain and organs. Then the body is moved to a cryonics facility, where an organ preservation solution is pumped through the veins before the body is submerged in liquid nitrogen. This process should commence within one hour of death—the longer the wait, the greater the damage to the body’s cells. Then, once the frozen cadaver is ensconced in the cryogenic chamber, the hope of the dead begins.
Since its beginnings in the late 1960s, the field has attracted opprobrium from the scientific community, particularly its more respectable cousin cryobiology—the study of how freezing and low temperatures affect living organisms and biological materials. The Society for Cryobiology even banned its members from involvement in cryonics in the 1980s, with a former society president lambasting the field as closer to “fraud than either faith or science.”
In recent years, though, it has grabbed the attention of the libertarian techno-optimist crowd, mostly tech moguls dreaming of their own immortality. And a number of new startups are expanding the playing field. Tomorrow Biostasis in Berlin became the first cryonics company in Western Europe in 2019, for example, and in early 2022, Southern Cryonics opened a facility in Australia.
“More researchers are open to longer-term, futuristic topics than there might have been 20 years ago or so,” says Tomorrow Biostasis founder Emil Kendziorra.