My first experience with terms such as: Cryopreservation, Cryonics or Biostasis, was through movies. I always considered this type of technology something for the far future or out of a sci-fi book. For me, topics covering longevity were related mostly with nutrition, health or even longevity diets.
I’ve always had a very pragmatic view on subjects that are part of my day-to-day life and have stayed neutral on everything else. Hence cryonics, cryopreservation and biostasis weren’t subjects I really ever had an opinion about. In general, the awareness people have on these topics is very limited, not making it a “Dinner talk” on a regular basis.
But, as a tech entrepreneur, I’ve always been very curious and open minded about new technologies. I came across an opportunity to launch a Biostasis start-up in Germany, which intrigued me since I didn’t know what it was.
According to Wikipedia, Biostasis is the ability of an organism to tolerate environmental changes without having to actively adapt to them. It is found in organisms that can survive in habitats that likely encounter hostile living conditions. For instance, environments with drought, extreme temperatures, change in pH levels, or pressure.
In summary, Biostasis is the ability to slow or pause all biochemical processes of a living organism to protect it from the environment and prevent decay. Imagine that you could press a “Pause” button on yourself. After several seasons, you could then press the “Play” button, without any significant physical changes. In other words, time has passed, but not to your body. So, does being frozen stop the aging process?
This actually happens already in nature. During winter, some frog species can freeze solid, in temperatures below zero degree celsius, and reanimate naturally once spring comes. This particular process is also known as cryopreservation. At this point I was definitely intrigued, and I asked myself:
For me, initially this question was a big no, but after studying a bit more, it became a maybe… I came to understand that the process of cryopreserving a human body is known as Cryonics (Kryonik in German). Currently, the meaning of cryonics can be summarized as the procedure of pausing the dying process using negative temperatures. The goal is to restore the good health of the patient with medical technology in the future.
In other words, cryonics believes that after a patient is legally declared dead, there is a time span where the brain structure remains intact. If you protect the brain from degradation by cryopreserving the patient, then they are not really dead. Think about 50 years ago, if you had a heart attack on the streets, you would be considered dead on the spot. But were you really? The CPR technique has proven millions of times that you can reanimate someone after a cardiac arrest. In summary, dying is not a moment, it is a process that ends up culminating in the destruction of the brain. If you can protect and cryopreserve the brain structure, in theory you could reanimate this individual.
I wondered how they do that? I always knew that if you freeze anything, ice crystals will form inside the cells, destroying them. So what is used in cryopreservation? The answer is Cryoprotectants.
To make long complex science short, cryoprotectant solutions are used to replace water inside the cells. In this way, once you apply liquid nitrogen and the temperature goes below freezing, ice crystals won’t form, protecting the cell structure.
Reducing body temperature to just below zero is not enough. To completely stop all biochemical processes in a human body ( and prevent any decay), you need to cool down its temperature to -196 degrees celsius. The process of cooling down the body to -196 degree celsius while not forming ice crystals (Thank you cryoprotectant solution!) is called vitrification.
I wanted to understand more about what organizations are out there doing this. There are two main players.
I was trying to understand what organizations were working with cryopreservation. Cryonics Institute and Alcor are two non-profit organizations. They’ve been working with cryonics for over 50 years and have together around 300 patients cryopreserved and a few thousand members.
Normally, as a tech entrepreneur you aim to identify problems with enough demand for solutions, so you can build upon this. The numbers are small, especially for organizations that have existed for more than 5 decades. So what could be the reasons for the low number of members? One area that comes to mind for many is the financial cost of this process.
Well, currently it is not cheap. It costs no less than $28,000 ( Cryonics Institute) and rarely more than $300,000 (Alcor). Cost depends on the cryonics organization, the type of cryopreservation, whether a standby team is used, the country of residence of the patient, and the amount of notice given to the cryonics organization.
Alcor and Cryonics Institute have been working with cryogenics for decades and proved to be reliable. Additionally, most of their patient’s cryopreservation funding comes through life insurance. Then, why so little interest? I believe there is a mix of factors: a) lack of awareness, b) pure prejudice or c) we just don’t think about it (this was my case!). But generally, people just think it is not possible.
The subject can be heavily controversial, since the aspect of death (and maybe religious belief) is involved in it. However, one can’t argue that this is not possible, nature already proves it is.
My gut feeling was telling me that, all this low interest, is mostly based on lack of knowledge of the general public. Once I had more information about the topic, it made a lot of sense to me. This gut feeling was confirmed with data. Tomorrow Biostasis ran a detailed survey on the topic with more than 4.000 respondents (between the United States and Germany). Surprisingly, the survey suggests that there is a strong interest in cryopreservation, especially once the respondent understood the meaning of it. Therefore, there is an untapped potential market out there.
But more importantly, Biostasis is a technology that must be pushed forward. This will only happen when private initiatives and entrepreneurs are brought into the game. Imagine for a moment, the journey of the search engine… This tool came from obscure internet labs until it reached billions of people with Google. This happened because several entrepreneurs believed that the internet and search engines could impact people’s lives positively. One could say Biostasis is in its infancy, much like Google was 25 years ago.
Cryopreservation is just a form of Biostasis. So Cryonics is nothing more than Biostasis through cryopreservation (or vitrification to be more specific). We also believe that Cryonics is intrinsically associated with freezing bodies, although that is not its ultimate goal. There is a great need for research on the “unfreezing” part and that is where we are focusing. We want to bring more cryobiologists and physicists researchers to the area. The goal of Biostasis is the development of technology capable of safely pausing all the biochemical processes of a living organism indefinitely and reanimating it without any damage. From buying time for a critically injured patient until medical support is available, to long space travels within our solar system, the applications of this type of technology are limitless.
Personally , I find the opportunity fascinating to help build an industry from scratch. Although the concept is not new, it is still in its infancy and this brings a series of extra challenges with it that are not found in regular tech start-ups.
But this topic spoke to me due to two particular reasons. First, I am very interested in longevity, or ways you can hack your body to try to extend your lifespan. As someone that enjoys seeing the world, life is just so interesting. I believe you should be able to choose how long you want to live this experience.
Secondly, I really believe that Biostasis could shape the world differently and could help a lot of people. I always think about my father and how he passed away due to bacterial infection after a simple surgery. What if we could have managed to slow down the infection rate and give more time for the antibiotics to work? Or how many people die unnecessarily due to lack of time for proper medical support to arrive?
After reading Emil’s (My co-founder & CEO of Tomorrow) motivation on Biostasis, I found that it was similar to my own. There was a lot of synergy between my views on the topic and now I’m helping Tomorrow Biostasis on its startup journey.
Biostasis is a topic that can be complicated. We want to make it easier to digest and understand. But if you are interested in the topic, I would suggest these two options as a quick intro: