A teenager who tragically died of cancer recently has become the latest among a tiny but growing number of people to be cryogenically frozen after death. These individuals were hoping that advances in science will one day allow them to be woken up and cured of the conditions that killed them. But how likely is it that such a day will ever come?
Nature has shown us that it is possible to cryopreserve animals like reptiles, amphibians, worms and insects. Nematode worms trained to recognise certain smells retain this memory after being frozen. The wood frog (Rana sylvatica) freezes during winter into a block of ice and hops around the following spring. However, in human tissue each freeze-thaw process causes significant damage. Understanding and minimising this damage is one of the aims of cryobiology.
At the cellular level, these damages are still poorly understood, but can be controlled. Each innovation in the field relies on two aspects: improving preservation during freezing and advancing recovery after thawing. During freezing, damage can be avoided by carefully modulating temperatures and by relying on various types of cryoprotectants. One of the main objectives is to inhibit ice formation which can destroy cells and tissues by displacing and rupturing them. For that reason, a smooth transition to a “glassy stage” (vitrification) by rapid cooling, rather than “freezing”, is the aim.
For this, simple substances such as sugars and starches have been used to change viscosity and protect cell membranes. Chemicals like dimethyl sulfoxide (DMSO), ethylene glycol, glycerol and propandiol are used to prevent intracellular ice formation and anti-freeze proteins inhibit ice crystal growth and re-crystallisation during thawing.