Special Guest Writers: John Schloendorn & Simone Syed
The 7th Alcor conference was held from Friday, October 5th to Sunday, October 7th in the Hilton Scottsdale Resort. The venue featured a level of luxury greater than a dewar, to say the least!
Friday evening began with a reception on the Hilton patio with light drinks and food. Also on Friday, Alcor public policy consultant Barry Aarons gave an introductory speech summarizing the recent progress of Alcor’s status as a research entitity in Arizona. Indeed, within only four years, Alcor has progressed from being existentially threatened by the state government, to being perceived as an accepted research and technology institute furthering the public good. We are all grateful to Barry and the Alcor leadership for their excellent public relations work that made this possible. The next step should be to strengthen Alcor’s relations with other leading biotechnology institutions in Arizona and to begin collaborations with efforts like the Biodesign Institute in Tempe, or the Bio5 in Tucson. In the long term, this should establish Alcor as an indispensible part of Arizona’s sprawling academic and industrial biotechnology network.
Saturday morning’s sessions featured talks from key individuals working to create and improve existing human cryopreservation technologies and processes. One of the first speakers, Brian Wowk, PhD, Senior Physicist at 21st Century Medicine, took us through the technical challenges and successes in cryopreservation research. Next, Alcor Executive Director Stephen Van Sickle gave us an overview of the research and process developments at the Alcor facility. Finally, Tanya Jones provided an in-depth look at current and future improvements in Alcor procedures and equipment.
Brian Wowk, PhD (by John Schloendorn)
Common Questions about Cryobiology and Cryonics
Brian Wowk, PhD, is the Senior Physicist of 21st Century Medicine, a company developing ice-free low temperature preservation solutions for a variety of applications, including cryonics. Brian addressed us with “Common Questions about Cryobiology and Cryonics.” It turned out to be a dense talk, covering topics all across the many scientific disciplines required for successful cryopreservation.
The first topic dealt with how fozen cells get squeezed between ice-crystals. Interestingly, fish and other organisms from sub-zero environments can either avoid freezing (fish) or can tolerate the damage induced by freezing (frogs). Research at 21st Century Medicine focuses on the former strategy: Preventing freezing and ice-formation even at temperatures as low as -196C, the temperature of liquid nitrogen used to preserve cryonics patients. This process, called vitrification (“turning organs into a glass-like state”) has led to an impressive list of isolated organs which can now be preserved ice-free at extremely low temperatures, without terminally damaging them. As one example, Brian took us through his now rather well-known results describing the cooling to -125C, thawing and successful transplantation of a rabbit kidney. This presentation featured a detailed photo story of the actual process and equipment used, which I had not seen before.
Next, Brian moved on to human cryopreservation. Of course, he was eager to point out that, unlike some organs, entire animals or humans cannot be cryopreserved at extreme temperatures and then repaired to a healthy state. This is only a theoretical possibility, upon which cryonicists rest their hopes. Thus, current cryopreservation protocols rely on the cryobiologist’s best guess of how to minimize tissue damage. Brian took us through protocols currently used on Alcor’s patients, involving perfusion with coolant/cryoprotectant and external ice packs. Ice-cooled patients are then rapidly shipped to Alcor for deep cooling and long-term care at the specialized facility. Up to 60% of a patient’s body fluids can be replaced with cryoprotectant during the cryopreservation process.
According to Brian, “it is believed” that optimally executed, ice-free preservation (vitrification) of the brain can be achieved. However, in most human cases, the process is less than optimally executed because patients tend to be far away from the Alcor facility or their condition is not discovered rapidly enough. Thus, patients tend to sustain a much higher level of damage due to deprivation of oxygen delivery to tissues due to lack of circulation (ischemia) than the models Brian used in his research. Ideally, one would use more “realistic” processes on animal models to give the typical cryonics patient a better picture of what they can expect in the case of unforeseen death under a variety of circumstances. However, this is understandably not a priority of current research. In my opinion, the best an Alcor member can do is make efficient transport arrangements when diagnosed with terminal disease and move to Scottsdale if at all possible.
Finally, Brian alluded to potential techniques to repair any damage left by the cryopreservation protocols, such as damage caused by cryoprotectant toxicity, ischemia, residual ice formation, and freeze-fracturing. Other speakers went into more detail about these potential future technologies. In Brian’s words, for now cryonics remains a technology to keep a patient’s condition from deteriorating further.
In the end, I was left with this question: What has 21st Century Medicine actually been up to in the past couple of years? While Dr. Wowk’s presentation provided excellent coverage of the background and basic science of cryopreservation (meeting its stated objective), it has been years since the rabbit kidney results were achieved. I can’t help wondering about the research results at 21st Century Medicine since that time.
Stephen Van Sickle (by Simone Syed)
Research Directions at Alcor
Stephen Van Sickle has been Alcor Executive Director since 2005 and an active member of Alcor since 1992. He currently oversees the day-to-day operations at Alcor and is heavily involved in the development and deployment of new cryopreservation methods and technologies.
Stephen explained that research specific to cryonics is limited today, so Alcor needs to perform its own research, which will also provide valuable training experience and attract and retain key personnel.
Some of the questions being looked at include: What is Alcor most interested in as a research topic? How much of the whole body is vitrifying? How do our anti-ischemia drugs relate to cryoprotection? At exactly what point does cryoprotection become irreversible? How do we improve Alcor as an organization? How do we perform meaningful experiments in cryonics? How do we improve on current processes?
Stephen went into considerable detail about the importance of choosing an appropriate model system and controlling experiments, emphasizing the need to narrow the focus and control experiments by using a control group and an experimental test group to see what a difference of one variable will make.
He also discussed the application of cold in medicine, for instance when people are cooled to hypothermic temperatures and rewarmed, as well as when organs are cooled and transplanted in thousands of ORs across the country. These practices are reversible, and the relevant organ preservation solution experiments helped pave the way for cryopreservation.
Regarding Alcor’s cardiopulmonary bypass lab which is being developed to test various aspects of the cryopreservation process, the rat model system is small, simple, and inexpensive. It is possible to perform one or two experiments a week per personnel. There is a wealth of experience from different laboratories on how to work with rats, and the Alcor lab has been constructed and its experiments designed to meet the standard animal care and use requirements. The lab has a specially-built surgical table and equipment that is sized to be flexible for use with many different types of animals. The scale is very difficult to work with because human-size equipment cannot be used on an organism comparably much smaller.
Once the model is established, what will be done with it? Alcor plans to conduct cryoprotection experiments. Previous work with dogs demonstrated that when 100% cryoprotection is used, an animal is not recoverable. Therefore, Alcor plans to research the point at which an animal is no longer perfusable and recoverable, and then to seek ways to move beyond that point. Incremental progress is what is needed in this area.
Fracture-free maintenance is a form of long-term care of cryopreserved people that prevents tissue fracturing. It is still in the research phase. Alcor is concerned about the fracturing that occurs while cooling cryonics patients to the glass transition temperature. How can this be stopped? The proposed fracture-free unit still needs to be tested in order to see if it is a usable solution for human care. With humans, fractures start long before cryonics patients are at the temperature of long-term care, -196C. This is distressing and the point of intermediate temperature storage is to curtail facture events. Alcor has begun its research by looking for tissue stresses using cross-polarized lenses, which are non-invasive and non-destructive. However, it was discovered a few weeks before this presentation was given that the equipment procured for this research was inadequate, and Stephen remarked that Alcor will now have to begin “from scratch” in order to assess the fracturing situation.
Stephen stated Alcor’s perspective that “slow and steady wins the race.” Alcor may be the tortoise of cryonics, but it is striving to be around for a long time and to eventually offer facilities all over the country and world.
This was a very informative talk about the more technological aspects of cryopreservation and the direction that new research at Alcor is taking. The lecture was a little dense at times, but in the 35 minutes, conveyed a vast amount of information. It is good to know that research is in the hands of someone who is passionate about the development of cryonics specific areas! I am glad to know that Alcor takes governmental requirements on research so seriously and is usually going above and beyond requirements.
Tanya Jones (by John Schloendorn)
Improving Cryopreservation Technology at Alcor
Tanya offered us a true deluge of recent and near-future improvements made to Alcor’s processes. The first critical step is the stabilization of a deceased patient for transport to the Alcor facility. The key intervention is, of course, cooling to zero degrees, which substantially slows the chemical reactions damaging the body of a patient whose heart has stopped. Within limits, airway management and cardiopulmonary support (without resuscitation) can maintain the oxygen supply to the patient’s organs during transport. Medication against damage induced by oxygen deprivation and blot clotting is also administered.
Tanya introduced substantial advancements being made at Alcor to streamline these processes and make them available to more patients. First and foremost, the stabilization network is now comprised of 73 Alcor members who provide a key local resource to help stabilize patients worldwide. Improved training and equipment for the stabilization networks’ volunteers are key on Alcor’s near-term agenda.
Tanya went on to give us a close-up presentation of Alcor’s new and under-development perfusion system, which comes in both stationary and mobile versions. The main foci of this innovative new system used during the cryopreservation process are automation, reliability and data collection. She discussed a number of projects underway at Alcor in detail, many of which were illuminated further at the Sunday afternoon facility tours.