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  • People can be frozen, but can they be revived?

  • Howard Troxler
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    People can be frozen, but can they be revived?

    By DAVID BALLINGRUD, Times Staff Writer
    © St. Petersburg Times
    published July 10, 2002

    If Ted Williams is indeed frozen in a metal tube in Scottsdale, Ariz., waiting for medical science to advance enough to bring him back to life, he may be there a long, long time.

    Alas, cryonics is not cryogenics.

    Cryogenics is the study of very low temperatures and their effects on matter. In the well-established field of cryogenic medicine, living tissues are chilled or frozen to slow metabolism and increase the chance of cell survival, or for longterm preservation.

    The freezing of Ted Williams' body -- if that has taken place -- would be an experiment in cryonics: freezing a deceased human so that it can be resuscitated and cured later when medical knowledge leaps ahead.

    Cryonics, if it worked, "would be a very, very big step" from the current state of cryogenics, said Dr. John Baust, member and past president of the Society for Cryobiology, "but it is not necessarily a logical step or a good one."

    Not only are there high hurdles to clear medically, he said, but there are moral and ethical issues to consider. "Why would we want to bring back a very sick 83-year-old? It smacks of fountain-of-youth thinking to me."

    But the moral and ethical questions may never have to be addressed, he said, since the medical problems are so daunting. Ice is one of those problems.

    The formation of ice in a cell is so destructive "it is almost explosive," Baust said. "In cryogenics we prevent ice from forming in living tissues -- an organ harvested for transplant, for example -- by adding something to the tissue, a kind of antifreeze."

    Cryonics would do the same, he said, but it's much more difficult, perhaps impossible, to do in a whole human body.

    "Different cell types, and there are hundreds of different types in the human body, would each require a different kind of treatment. I can't say it will never happen, but it is a formidable challenge.

    "We (in the scientific community) are accused of being Neanderthals" for skepticism about cryonics, Baust said. "But I say we are preservation scientists, because we focus on living systems. Cryonics would take a dead system and try to preserve that."

    Alcor Life Extension Foundation did not respond to inquiries Tuesday, directing reporters to its Web site,

    As of last month, Alcor had 49 "patients" in cryogenic suspension at its facility. It says that more than 100 individuals have been frozen since the first cryonic suspension in 1967, and nearly a thousand worldwide currently have financial and legal arrangements in place for cryonic preservation.

    "With the many advances in modern science, such as DNA mapping, stem cell research, therapeutic cloning, human genome studies and the emerging discipline of nanotechnology, the possibility of living a longer, more productive life even following the event we now refer to as 'death,' is becoming more realistic with each passing day," Alcor states on its Web site.

    "Legal death is not the same as biological death," the company argues. "The process of deterioration, which we call 'dying,' is not a sudden event. It is much more like slipping into a deep coma. It has been demonstrated conclusively that several hours after declaration of death, most of the cells in the body, including those in the brain, are still individually alive and capable of resuming function."

    Alcor acknowledges on its Web site that "cryonics is not yet accepted as a legitimate life-saving procedure by today's medical authorities," but also says, "Mainstream medicine often moves forward at glacial speed."

    It also acknowledges that "current technology cannot conclusively prove a frozen person can be revived and repaired."

    To become a member, Alcor charges a $150 application fee and $398 in annual dues. Upon a member's death, Alcor charges $50,000 to preserve a head and $120,000 for the entire body. It says most fees are paid by life insurance.

    In 1987, Alcor was involved in a scandal surrounding the death of Riverside, Calif., resident Dora Kent. Authorities questioned whether Kent was dead when her head was removed and frozen.

    More than a year later, the county coroner's office ruled Kent died from a lethal dose of barbiturates and classified her death as a homicide. Alcor officials said the drug was administered after her death to preserve brain cells. No charges were ever filed.

    Since February 2001, the company has been led by Dr. Jerry Lemler, who holds a doctorate from the University of Tennessee College of Medicine. He has practiced in Tennessee, South Carolina, Pennsylvania and Alabama, specializing in psychiatry, clinical molecular genetics and medical management.

    State regulators have opened two investigations into complaints against Lemler in the 11/2 years since he came to Arizona. One malpractice complaint against him resulted in a payment, according to Arizona Board of Medical Examiners records. A settlement doesn't mean that malpractice occurred, according to the board.

    Lemler didn't return calls to his office.

    -- Information from the Associated Press was used in this report.

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