Cryonics provide cold comfort

Technology that may be in store for T. Williams is far-fetched, scientists say

July 10, 2002|By Maya Bell | Maya Bell,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

ORLANDO, Fla. - Ah, immortality. Who hasn't dreamed of cheating death? Of attending your great-great-great grandchild's wedding? Of witnessing the colonization of space?

Well, forget about it - or about seeing Ted Williams have another .400 season. Amid reports that the former Boston Red Sox slugger has been placed in a cryonic deep freeze by his son, most scientists say you would be wiser spending your money enjoying your time on Earth than investing in future revival.

Someday, maybe even in the not-so-distant-future, we might invent the biotechnology to freeze people suffering from, say cancer or heart disease, and thaw them out when there's a cure. But there's little chance, most scientists agree, of bringing someone back from the dead.

"As far as I'm concerned the whole thing is nonsense. It's a scam." said S. Mitchell Harman, an internationally recognized expert on hormones and aging. "It's a giant scam of people who are true believers and people who are happy to take their money."

Harman made his comments from the Kronos Longevity Research Institute in Phoenix, not far from the Alcor Life Extension Foundation in Scottsdale, Ariz., where Williams' remains were reportedly flown after his death in Florida on Friday at the age of 83.

Bobbie Jo Ferrell, Williams" daughter from his first marriage, claims that her half-brother John Henry Williams plans to freeze and preserve their father's remains so his DNA can be sold in the future. She told the Associated Press on Sunday that she would file suit to "rescue" the body, but nothing has been filed yet in either Scottsdale or in Florida. Neither Ferrell nor John Henry Williams was available for comment.

Talk of selling DNA immediately gave rise to speculation about cloning - which Harman and other scientists say is not as far-fetched as reviving someone who's died. With a few milliliters of Williams' bone marrow, scientists might be able to make a genetic twin of the legendary ballplayer one day.

"Just get his bone marrow and store it cryogenically and you could probably clone him in the near future." Harman said. "The issues are ethical, not scientific."

But reviving the original Ted Williams or any other dead person whose remains have been cooled rapidly and preserved in super-cold temperatures - or cryonically suspended - is an other matter, scientists say. Though according to Alcor's Web site, that hasn't stopped more than 580 people from sign ing up to take their place in the company's "patient care center' when their time comes.

The company says 49 others already have been cryonically suspended in tall stainless-steel canisters, called dewars, in the nondescript business center to which it moved in 1994. The company was founded in 1972.

Worldwide, roughly 100 people have opted for cryogenic preservation. Most of the others are at the Cryonics Institute of Clinton Township, Mich., which was founded by cryonics pioneer Robert C.W. Ettinger, a Michigan physics professor.

Alcor officials could not be reached for comment. But according to its Web site, Alcor offers two cryonic options: preservation of the head only, which costs $50,000, and full-body suspension, which costs $120,000.

That doesn't include a one-time signup fee of $150, annual membership dues of $398 or the cost of twice-monthly refills of liquid nitrogen, used to keep the heads and bodies at minus-196 degrees Celsius.

Whatever the sum, scientists overwhelmingly agree that people who shell it out are wasting it.

"I would say you might find one scientist in a thousand who would disagree." said Leonard Hayflick, an anatomy professor at the University of California-San Francisco, who was the first person to grow normal cells in a lab culture.

Hayflick said Alcor correctly states that many biological or ganisms - such as whole insects, vinegar eels, human embryos and human brain cells - have been cryopreserved and successfully revived. But, Hayflick said, each of these organisms is tiny: "No one has been able to freeze or resurrect organisms bigger than a matchstick head."

But echoing an oft-repeated caveat, Michael Fossel, editor in chief of the Journal of Anti-Aging Medicine, said he's unwilling to say the dead will never be frozen and revived when a cure is discovered for whatever killed them.

"All of us agree: You can't do it today." Fossel said. "But we"ve been wrong about lots of things. In the '30s, most reliable scientists would say no if asked, "Can you go to the moon?" '

And, that, in a nutshell, is what keeps companies like Alcor in business. As Alcor says, "Optimism for the future of medicine and technology is what lies at the core of cryonics."

The company, and the few other like it, are counting on advances in science - including DNA mapping, stem cell research, therapeutic cloning, human genome studies and the emerging discipline of nanotechnology, to make possible life after death as we know it today.

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