You may be aware of the concept of cryonics by now: an advanced medical procedure that uses extremely low temperatures to stop all biological processes in the body. But where did it all begin? While some people consider cryopreservation a modern phenomenon hinged on future tech, the science dates back much further than you might think.
Before the world was introduced to preservation at cryogenic temperatures, there was frostbite and hibernation. 17th Century pioneer of modern chemistry Robert Boyle was best known for his law of gasses, although his work spanned physics, earth sciences, and medicine. In one study he carried out titled, “New Experiments and Observations Touching Cold,” (1668) Boyle experimented with solutions to examine the effects that sub-zero temperatures had on different animals. In it, the Irish philosopher believed that certain animals could be frozen and revived if thawed slowly. He thought that extreme cold temperatures could delay decay in animal tissues and could be beneficial for preserving meat.
In 1938, Swiss scientist Basile J. Luyet and fellow researchers opted to dehydrate animal cells before freezing them in the hopes of preserving them. In his paper “Revival of Frog’s Spermatozoa Vitrified in Liquid Air,” the scientist exposed frog spermatozoa to liquid air for about 10 seconds before immersing them in pond water. He believed the quick succession between the liquid air and the +20 degrees celsius pond water would help avoid crystallisation.
In 1940, B. Luyett published a book titled “Life and Death at Low Temperatures”, which would later become a classic in the field and spur him to become the father of modern cryobiology. Luyett looked at the possibility of solidification at low temperatures without ice formation in biological materials. This approach would also inspire further research for organ preservation by Californian-Based cryobiologist Greg Fahy in the 1980s.
The 40s would slowly see researchers looking for safe ways to freeze cells while allowing them to be viable again. Many protective agents had been trialed and erred before French biologist Jean Rostand started experimenting with glycerol. At the time, Rostand was studying how low temperatures affected the properties of materials and living things – what we know today as cryogenics. In 1946, Rostand froze frog sperm to the point where all biological activity and decay had stopped. Days later, the spermatozoa revived, and his work would influence none other than the father of cryonics, Robert Ettinger decades later.
Exciting developments happened in 1949, when British scientists Christopher Polge, Audrey Ursula Smith, and Alan Sterling Parkes also happened upon glycerol’s cryoprotective properties. In their groundbreaking work entitled “Revival of Spermatozoa after Dehydration and Vitrification at Low Temperatures,' the researchers examined the effects of combining glycerol with human, rabbit, and fowl sperm. Their research looked at using different levels of glycerol, striking a balance between cell protection and toxicity. Interestingly enough, years later this is still a challenge the industry faces with current cryopreservation techniques.
In 1952, Christopher Polge and fellow British researcher Lionel Edward Aston Rowson carried out several experiments for freezing bull semen that would be artificially inseminated into cows. While artificial insemination had been around since the 19th Century, the opportunity now to preserve the sperm meant extending the life of a viable sample. The research concluded that bull semen can retain its fertility throughout the process, yielding a high percentage in pregnancy rates. This discovery led to countless more frozen mammalian sperm experiments and to a worldwide revolution in artificial insemination among cattle.
“Fatherhood After Death Has Now Been Proved Possible” read the Cedar Rapids Gazette on April 9th, 1954. University researchers Jerome Sherman and Professor Raymond Bunge at the University of Iowa were the first to develop a technique for freezing and thawing human sperm while maintaining its viability. At the university’s hospital fertility clinic, three women had successfully become pregnant with previously preserved semen, thus changing the lives of future parents forever.
Born in America in 1918, Robert Ettinger first became interested in science fiction as a child when he read a book called “The Jameson Satellite.” The story told of a scientist, Professor Jameson, who had his remains sent into a near-zero temperature orbit before a group of cyborgs helped to revive him 40 million years later.
During his recovery after serving in World War II, Ettinger took the time to research areas of interest, most notably the work of Jean Rostand during the 1940s. In 1948, Ettinger wrote the fictional story “The Penultimate Trump”, outlining the possibilities of preservation at cryogenic temperatures. In 1962 he published “The Prospect of Immortality” where he argued for the “possibility for limitless life for our generation,” which would ultimately lead the cryonics movement. In that same year, fellow cryonics enthusiast and American man Evan Cooper also released a book entitled “Immortality: Physically, Scientifically, Now.”
Ettinger founded his non-profit organization, The Cryonics Institute (CI) in Michigan in 1976. He also established The Immortalist Society, which was founded upon researching and educating all aspects of cryopreservation. Ettinger died in 2011 and is currently being cryopreserved at CI. Without the pioneering work led by Ettinger and co., the progress made in human cryogenics might not have been possible.
After the publication of Ettinger’s “Prospect of Immortality” and the founding of “Cooper’s Life Extension Society” in 1964, there was a lot of optimism in the field. However, time went on, millions were dying each year, and the industry was yet to see its first case. There had been several failed attempts for a number of reasons: time lapse between the announcement of legal death and procedure, and disapproval from hospital staff or family. However, on January 12th, 1967, a man named James Bedford from Glendale, Los Angeles, would become the first person to be preserved at cryogenic temperatures. Bedford, who was suffering from terminal renal cancer, allowed for a big step in the cryonics trajectory, paving the way for future patients to follow. You can read more about James Bedford and the curiosities surrounding his cryopreservation here.
Despite the great advancements happening at the time, it wasn’t until 1972 that another milestone event took place. Scientists Mazur, Leibo, Whittingham and Wilmut reported the first mouse pups born from cryopreserved embryos. This saw the development in cryopreservation protocols for other mammals and humans.
In 1983, Australian doctors Trounson and Mohr achieved the first human pregnancy from a frozen-thawed embryo transfer (FTET) with the same procedure used successfully for mice. A four to eight-cell embryo was preserved and stored for four months in liquid nitrogen. Then, on April 11th, 1984, baby Zoe was the world’s first embryo baby born.
The first organ transplant was carried out in 1954, and was performed by Dr. Joseph Murray in Boston, Massachusetts. By 1967 American surgeon Thomas Starzl carried out the first-ever liver transplant. While the procedure was successful, Starzl stated that safe and accessible transplants for patients around the world wouldn’t be possible without major developments in organ preservation. While attempts have been made since, preservation developments are yet to be seen, adding to further constraints and logistical issues in organ transplantation methods today. In 1985, American Red Cross researchers Greg Fahy and Bill Rall came up with a method to vitrify mouse embryos. This procedure was quickly applied to preserve sperm, oocytes, and embryos, however it had not been fruitful in preserving larger tissues and organs.
Following the success of the mouse embryo vitrification, Fahy attempted to vitrify a rabbit kidney. In 2002, Fahy vitrified a rabbit kidney at -130 degrees celsius and rewarmed it using a conductive warming technique with perfusion. The scientist then transplanted the kidney into a different rabbit who lived for a subsequent 48 days. The cryoprotectant solution used in the experiment was called M22; a formula and method that he has been modifying and developing ever since.
Every day we see some of the extraordinary benefits of cryopreservation around us, thanks to years of researching, experimenting, and pioneering carried out by professionals in the field. In the medical industry, patients have access to procedures such as IVF. Similarly, in cases of cancer patients or those diagnosed with other malignant diseases, doctors can store and preserve spermatozoa, eggs, and embryos, so that they are not affected by radiotherapy. Cryopreservation can also be used for storing rare blood cells to be used in transfusions if needed.
Cryonic companies continue their research in the field of human cryopreservation with the hope that revival is possible for people in the future. Beyond this, however; developments are happening in the industry every day, which could change the livelihoods of you and your loved ones today.
What’s more, once solutions are introduced and implemented to cryopreserve organs, countless lives could be saved through organ banks worldwide.
The technique of cryopreservation is recognised globally for achieving long-term preservation at low temperatures. It’s not only used in human cryonics but in countless scientific research areas. Since its introduction decades ago, we have seen cryo procedures continually evolve, leaving us to wonder where we might be in 10, 20, or 100 years' time.
With exciting advancements already seen in both the medical profession and in human cryopreservation, we can start to change the way we view our lives, both now and in the future. Years ago, certain ailments might have meant we were doomed with the technology that was available. Now, we are met with further possibilities and choices to live a life thanks to years of development in medicine and tech.
If you want to learn more about human cryopreservation, just take a look at our editorial, Tomorrow Insights. There, you can get a better understanding of the potential offered by cryonics and what products and services we offer. If you don’t have any doubts about cryonics and are looking to be cryopreserved, you can sign up here!