14 Year Old Wins Right to Have Her Body Cryogenically Preserved

Would you be cryo-preserved, knowing that if you survived, you would wake up hundreds of years later? 


It’s an urban legend many of us have heard and wondered about. It goes like this. Walt Disney had his body frozen at the time of his death, awaiting revival shortly after a cure for cancer had been found. Alas, though captivating it’s unfounded. The visionary was cremated on the day of his funeral back in 1966. But now, a teenage girl from the UK has in reality done what was rumored to have been performed on the inventor of Mickey Mouse. She was cryogenically frozen in the hope of being revived sometime in the future when a cure is in hand.  

The “bright, intelligent” girl identified only as “JS,” officially passed away on October 17, from a rare form of cancer. Press coverage was restricted until recently. London's High Court agreed to allow her to go forward with the procedure.

Her parents are divorced. She hadn’t seen her father for eight years, reports say. When he first heard of her plan, her father was against it, while her mother supported it. He said even if JS did wake up hundreds of years later, she’d have no family or friends and would be stuck in a foreign country, as the facility chosen is in the US. After some deliberation in court, her father did eventually come around, saying he respected her decision. Justice Peter Jackson, who oversaw the case had sympathy for the man, saying, "No other parent has ever been put in his position.”


A cryonic cooling chamber.  

JS reportedly told a relative “I’m dying, but I’m going to come back again in 200 years.” Well, why not? It worked for Philip J. Fry. JS researched cryonic preservation online for several months before making her decision, then wrote Justice Jackson. He encountered her case on September 26. Then the judge visited her in the hospital and was moved by her, granting her request on October 6.

In her letter to the court the girl wrote:  

I have been asked to explain why I want this unusual thing done. I'm only 14 years-old and I don't want to die, but I know I am going to. I think being cryo-preserved gives me a chance to be cured and woken up, even in hundreds of years' time. I don't want to be buried underground. I want to live and live longer and I think that in the future they may find a cure for my cancer and wake me up. I want to have this chance. This is my wish.

Today, cryopreservation facilities reside only in the US and Russia. A client’s body is preserved using liquid nitrogen and stored at a temperature of -202°F (-130°C). At the facility JS chose, The Cryonics Institute in Michigan, the cost of the most basic service was around $46,000. The girl’s maternal grandparents raised the money. JS brings their number of “cryopreserved patients” up to 143, at present. About 350 people worldwide have undergone the procedure total, since it was first developed in the 1960s.

Disturbingly, the first 20 patients to undergo it were eventually buried, after the company providing the service went bankrupt. Today, two major operators perform cryopreservation in the US, the aforementioned Cryonics Institute and Alcor of Arizona. Each has been performing the procedure since the 1970s. In addition to people, pets are often placed in cryostat.

Though we can be preserved in what is known as cryonics, we cannot be revived. What’s more, there is some debate as to whether certain organs and structures in the body, such as the kidneys, can be frozen and ultimately thawed out, unharmed. This and other issues makes cryopreservation controversial. The industry views it as merely “an ambulance ride to the future.” Sooner or later we are assured, science will have a way.

Science is good at preserving blood and the sex cells, even embryos. But the whole body is another thing.

There were issues with the freezing process on the day of JS’s death, according to her mother. A group of volunteers helped prepare her body for preservation, in a manner that has been described as disorganized. In fact, the hospital expressed concern for the way things were handled.

To prepare the body, the blood must first be removed and replaced with antifreeze. Next, it must be cooled to -94°F (-70°C). Physical decay will be brought to a near standstill at this temperature. In JS’s case, her body was placed into a metal crate filled with dry ice and loaded onto a plane, headed for Michigan.

She was received at the facility eight days after her death. According to the institute’s website, "The patient was then placed in the computer controlled cooling chamber to cool to liquid nitrogen temperature." Twenty-four hours would be required for the patient to reach the proper temperature. Now, her body rests in cryostat or “long-term cryonic storage."

Moving forward, Justice Jackson expressed the need for regulation of cryopreservation. A procedure should be outlined and expressed to those involved in preparations. The judge also wrote that this was the first such case to come up in England and Wales and perhaps, the world. This case was, as he put it, “an example of the new questions that science poses to the law.”

To hear another point of view on cryonics, click here: 

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  • Researchers at the Yale School of Medicine successfully restored some functions to pig brains that had been dead for hours.
  • They hope the technology will advance our understanding of the brain, potentially developing new treatments for debilitating diseases and disorders.
  • The research raises many ethical questions and puts to the test our current understanding of death.

The image of an undead brain coming back to live again is the stuff of science fiction. Not just any science fiction, specifically B-grade sci fi. What instantly springs to mind is the black-and-white horrors of films like Fiend Without a Face. Bad acting. Plastic monstrosities. Visible strings. And a spinal cord that, for some reason, is also a tentacle?

But like any good science fiction, it's only a matter of time before some manner of it seeps into our reality. This week's Nature published the findings of researchers who managed to restore function to pigs' brains that were clinically dead. At least, what we once thought of as dead.

What's dead may never die, it seems

The researchers did not hail from House Greyjoy — "What is dead may never die" — but came largely from the Yale School of Medicine. They connected 32 pig brains to a system called BrainEx. BrainEx is an artificial perfusion system — that is, a system that takes over the functions normally regulated by the organ. The pigs had been killed four hours earlier at a U.S. Department of Agriculture slaughterhouse; their brains completely removed from the skulls.

BrainEx pumped an experiment solution into the brain that essentially mimic blood flow. It brought oxygen and nutrients to the tissues, giving brain cells the resources to begin many normal functions. The cells began consuming and metabolizing sugars. The brains' immune systems kicked in. Neuron samples could carry an electrical signal. Some brain cells even responded to drugs.

The researchers have managed to keep some brains alive for up to 36 hours, and currently do not know if BrainEx can have sustained the brains longer. "It is conceivable we are just preventing the inevitable, and the brain won't be able to recover," said Nenad Sestan, Yale neuroscientist and the lead researcher.

As a control, other brains received either a fake solution or no solution at all. None revived brain activity and deteriorated as normal.

The researchers hope the technology can enhance our ability to study the brain and its cellular functions. One of the main avenues of such studies would be brain disorders and diseases. This could point the way to developing new of treatments for the likes of brain injuries, Alzheimer's, Huntington's, and neurodegenerative conditions.

"This is an extraordinary and very promising breakthrough for neuroscience. It immediately offers a much better model for studying the human brain, which is extraordinarily important, given the vast amount of human suffering from diseases of the mind [and] brain," Nita Farahany, the bioethicists at the Duke University School of Law who wrote the study's commentary, told National Geographic.

An ethical gray matter

Before anyone gets an Island of Dr. Moreau vibe, it's worth noting that the brains did not approach neural activity anywhere near consciousness.

The BrainEx solution contained chemicals that prevented neurons from firing. To be extra cautious, the researchers also monitored the brains for any such activity and were prepared to administer an anesthetic should they have seen signs of consciousness.

Even so, the research signals a massive debate to come regarding medical ethics and our definition of death.

Most countries define death, clinically speaking, as the irreversible loss of brain or circulatory function. This definition was already at odds with some folk- and value-centric understandings, but where do we go if it becomes possible to reverse clinical death with artificial perfusion?

"This is wild," Jonathan Moreno, a bioethicist at the University of Pennsylvania, told the New York Times. "If ever there was an issue that merited big public deliberation on the ethics of science and medicine, this is one."

One possible consequence involves organ donations. Some European countries require emergency responders to use a process that preserves organs when they cannot resuscitate a person. They continue to pump blood throughout the body, but use a "thoracic aortic occlusion balloon" to prevent that blood from reaching the brain.

The system is already controversial because it raises concerns about what caused the patient's death. But what happens when brain death becomes readily reversible? Stuart Younger, a bioethicist at Case Western Reserve University, told Nature that if BrainEx were to become widely available, it could shrink the pool of eligible donors.

"There's a potential conflict here between the interests of potential donors — who might not even be donors — and people who are waiting for organs," he said.

It will be a while before such experiments go anywhere near human subjects. A more immediate ethical question relates to how such experiments harm animal subjects.

Ethical review boards evaluate research protocols and can reject any that causes undue pain, suffering, or distress. Since dead animals feel no pain, suffer no trauma, they are typically approved as subjects. But how do such boards make a judgement regarding the suffering of a "cellularly active" brain? The distress of a partially alive brain?

The dilemma is unprecedented.

Setting new boundaries

Another science fiction story that comes to mind when discussing this story is, of course, Frankenstein. As Farahany told National Geographic: "It is definitely has [sic] a good science-fiction element to it, and it is restoring cellular function where we previously thought impossible. But to have Frankenstein, you need some degree of consciousness, some 'there' there. [The researchers] did not recover any form of consciousness in this study, and it is still unclear if we ever could. But we are one step closer to that possibility."

She's right. The researchers undertook their research for the betterment of humanity, and we may one day reap some unimaginable medical benefits from it. The ethical questions, however, remain as unsettling as the stories they remind us of.