Waiting to Awake
Scottsdale-based Alcor Life Extension Foundation offers a possible present in the future
By Charlie Vascellaro | Photography by Mark Peterman
In Woody Allen’s comic film “Sleeper,” the character played by Allen is awakened 200 years after being cryogenically frozen, following what was supposed to be routine gall bladder surgery. The time is 2173 and the place is somewhere in the Southwestern United States. Despite being in a state of suspended animation for two centuries, Allen’s memory and personality are completely intact. In a briefing session with scientists who revive him, he recounts his past and provides explanations and definitions of what the world was like 200 years ago. In the developing plot to follow, Allen finds himself adjusting to life in the future for better and worse.
Scottsdale-based Alcor Life Extension Foundation offers the possibility of realizing a similar scenario somewhere in the not so distant future.
“Alcor was founded in 1972 to provide cryopreservation services. What that means is we preserve people at low temperatures for future reanimation or future revival,” says Alcor COO Tanya Jones. “There are lots and lots of things that kill people today—cancer, AIDS, old age—and for this experiment to be perfectly successful, we need not just a perfected preservation process but cures for [those things].”
Founded as the Alcor Society for Solid State Hypothermia by Fred and Linda Chamberlin in 1972, and originally located in Fullerton, Calif., the name was changed to Alcor Life Extension Foundation in 1977, and the operation and patients moved to its current North Scottsdale location in 1994. Among Alcor’s first patients are Fred’s father, who was preserved in 1976, and Linda’s mother.
Since its conception, Alcor has grown incrementally, expanding its membership at a slow but steady rate of 6 percent to 7 percent annually. It currently has 75 patients cryogenically preserved and 825 members paying dues and contractually committed to their future preservation.
“We average about three or four preservations a year at the moment,” says Jones. “Our youngest [patient] was a 21-year-old woman who died rather unexpectedly and our oldest patient is 99 and-a-half years old.”
Inspiration for the concept of cryonics was first promoted publicly in “The Prospect of Immortality,” a book written by a physics teacher named Robert Ettinger in 1964, which has become equivalent to Alcor’s doctrine. Ettinger holds an eternally optimistic vision of the future.
Writes Ettinger: “Clearly the freezer is more attractive than the grave, even if one has doubts about the future capabilities of science. With bad luck, the frozen people will simply remain dead, as they would have in the grave. But with good luck, the manifest destiny of science will be realized, and the resuscitees will drink the wine of centuries unborn. The likely prize is so enormous that even slender odds would be worth embracing.”
“I like the odds,” offers Nevada casino owner, Don Laughlin, when asked why he became an Alcor member.
Although a patient’s whole body can be preserved, many Alcor members choose the “neuro option,” preserving only the brain. In a flyer distributed by Alcor, author and former foundation COO Charles Platt writes: “Our members choose the ‘neuro option’ for various reasons. First, we may be able to provide more effective and complete cryoprotection if our efforts are focused solely on the brain. Second, our long-term maintenance costs are much lower. Third, the patient will be easier to relocate if this is ever necessary. At the present time, Alcor can apply vitrification [freezing in liquid nitrogen] techniques only to neuropatients. Whole-body cases still receive the lesser protection provided by glycerol.”
Platt’s sentiments were written before he left Alcor to become a director for the Florida-based, Suspended Animation Inc., but four years later, Jones reiterated Alcor’s preference toward the neuro-preservation option.
“Because the procedure, for technical reasons, is slightly better on small organs or small volumes we preserve the brain separately,” says Jones. “Sometimes [the brain] preserves slightly better [when kept separate] because it takes less time to cool.”
Obviously, anyone who signs up to become an Alcor member probably has an optimistic view of the future and technology.
“What we anticipate is extreme advances in stem cell therapies where a new body will be grown around the existing brain—it will not be a clone and it will not be a transplant,” says Jones.
Still, some members like David Pizer, 62, prefer to take their bodies with them on their journey to the future.
“The idea of the neuro is that they’ll pull your brain out and grow a new body. I think it will be easier to repair the existing body than to grow a new one,” says Pizer, one of Alcor’s longest standing members, signing on in 1982. Pizer, well known in Phoenix as the owner of the Fitwell Seatcovers automobile upholstery company, learned of Alcor while he was on the job.
“I saw it in a newspaper article,” says Pizer. “A used car salesman was telling jokes and mentioned a story he had seen in that day’s paper about Alcor; everybody laughed…except me. I jumped in my car and ran over to my office and called Alcor, and signed up immediately. I had my insurance binder within two days,” says Pizer.
For Pizer, the idea of reanimation was the answer to a problem that had bothered him all his life.
“Since I was 10 years old, I always thought death was a horrible thing that negates life,” says Pizer. “I never had a lot of hope in religion. It looked like politics to me, and murder. Death seemed like a hopeless end, [but] cryonics seemed pretty cool. I’ve always had faith in humanity and the good things about it as far as the future is concerned and what we’ll be able to accomplish.”
Perhaps the most famous brain being preserved by Alcor belongs to Hall of Fame baseball player, Ted Williams. Alcor received widespread media publicity at the center of a controversial news story concerning Williams’ death in 2002. The story came to light after a battle between two of Williams’ children concerning whether or not the Splendid Splinter himself had actually consented to the cryopreservation process.
An investigative piece written by Tom Verducci for Sports Illustrated magazine in August of 2003, detailed the family feud between Williams’ son John Henry and daughter Claudia, on one side, claiming that cryopreservation was indeed Williams’ desire and older first born daughter Bobby-Jo on the other, who questioned the validity of Williams’ Alcor membership.
At the time, previous Alcor CEO, Jerry Lemler cited a policy of confidentiality and indeed Alcor is contractually not at liberty to talk of Williams’ case, or any others, unless members have granted authorized permission for the company to use their names. However, Larry Johnson (Alcor’s outgoing COO at the time) told Sports Illustrated that John Henry Williams and Lemler spoke of the possibility of going public with Williams’ membership. In a letter, obtained by Sports Illustrated, Lemler wrote that “it would be huge,” to have a public endorsement of the company from Williams adding, “Stated bluntly, the Williams name can be expected to provide Alcor with a fund-raising and membership-enhancing leverage wedge it has never possessed.”
Outside of Nevada casino mogul Laughlin’s quote in its promotional material, Alcor has steered away from high-profile celebrity spokespersons.
“Celebrity endorsements are not a method that I think would work well for our business model,” says Jones. “It’s the science-based logic that drives people toward us as an alternative.”
However, Executive Director Stephen Van Sickle offered a hypothetically contrary scenario. “On the other hand, it would be nice if people didn’t feel there was any sort of stigma to it so they would be comfortable talking about it,” says Van Sickle.
While the Williams case attracted attention to Alcor, it also invited skepticism. The Sports Illustrated article was written with the cooperation of Johnson, who made numerous accusations of negligent procedures regarding Williams’ cryopreservation and storage. Johnson resigned from his position a week before the story was published. Since then, the company has quietly went about re-crafting its image, continuing to reference support it has received in its endeavors from the scientific and medical communities.
Nanotechnology is a science of controlling matter on an extremely small scale and the manipulation of atoms and molecules to build and restore human tissue. Drexler is author of the book “Engines of Creation,” which focuses on nanotechnology but also contains a chapter on cryonics. Jones says books like Drexler’s fueled Alcor membership in the late 1980s and early 1990s.
In addition, Marvin Minske, Ph.D., and an M.I.T. professor referred to as the father of artificial intelligence, is a member and sits on Alcor’s scientific advisory board.
“We have a much larger distribution of M.D.s and Ph.Ds in our membership base than standard demographic distributions would indicate,” says Jones.
Douglas Chandler, a professor in the School of Life Sciences at Arizona State University, is not convinced that damage inflicted upon Alcor’s patients as a result of the cryo-preservation process can be reversed.
“There are a lot of problematic areas. I personally would be very skeptical. The first problem is these people are dead before they’re frozen. At death people deteriorate fast. You can have tissue alive for possibly six to 12 hours after a person dies, but almost all cells will have died structurally within a few hours of death, due to lack of oxygen blood flow and so forth, which will lead to changes that are likely irreversible within a couple of hours,” says Chandler adding, “How fast are they getting these bodies to freeze? If it’s more than six or seven hours, there is little hope. The second thing is the cryoprotection; can you protect huge pieces of tissue? I know of no studies that have been completely successful at getting tissue protected without any damage. A few publications [have claimed] one can still take the sperm and eggs out of animals like a frozen wooly mammoth in Siberia. I’m very skeptical it can be accomplished, but there have been studies that a mammal can be frozen. I suppose there is a small amount of hope that one can thaw out without too much damage. And finally the unknown hope that if a person died of cancer, after ‘X’ number of years cancer can be cured. That’s an unknown. I’m pretty skeptical, but at the same time I can point to little glimpses here and there that it might be done.”
Jones agrees, to some extent, with Chandler that correcting or fixing damage that occurs during the freezing process is absolutely required for Alcor’s great experiment to be a success and is perhaps the foundation’s greatest challenge.
“With the vitrification process, we can get a single organ down to minus 130 degrees reversibly. We think the damage that occurs below that temperature is a very different type of damage. Part of our research involves looking for solutions to that problem in particular, so I don’t anticipate that the chemicals themselves will be changed significantly unless we find there’s a whole new class of damage that prevents the reversibility, but the odds are looking slimmer on that,” says Jones.
Alcor’s challenge is two-fold, with both a reversal of the vitrification process and cures for the diseases suffered by its patients necessary for reanimation to occur.
“It’s a combination because there’s damage below minus 130 with the vitrification,” says Jones. “That damage will still need to be reversed. [There will be] gross fractures that will have to be repaired, and it’s probable that molecular nanotechnology and medical nanotechnology will be required to fix people. We also need the cures.” To this end, Alcor funds outsourced nanotechnology research.
“We’re primarily focused on reversing the preservation process,” says Jones.
Most of this work is being done by Robert A. Frietas Jr., J.D., senior research fellow at the Institute for Molecular Manufacturing in Palo Alto, Calif., and author of “Nanomedicine,” the first book-length technical discussion of the medical applications of nanotechnology and medical nanorobotics.
“He is fascinated by what we do and he considers repairing these patients to be one of the hardest medical problems that exists, so he enjoys working toward that end,” says Jones.
Will advances in research and technology lead to a successful resurrection like Woody Allen’s “Sleeper” 20 years from now? And is the public ready to accept cryonics as a legitimate field of study?
“Eventually I believe cryonics is going to be perceived as a common medical practice, maybe not by 2028 but possibly not too far after that. It will be used in cases where if a sudden virus comes up that is killing people, then you’re put into a preserved state until a cure is found. This will be an alternative, but that will only occur once this is reversible,” says Jones. “There really isn’t a realistic timetable yet because we are relying on nanotechnology to develop—we’re probably looking at 50 years.”
While Chandler remains skeptical, he does not fully discount the possibility of cryonics and its pursuits being realized in the future, citing recent history that theories once regarded as science fiction or wild imaginations in the past have become realized in the future. “I would agree there are some pretty amazing things we wouldn’t have envisioned 10 or 20 years ago—the cloning of animals is one of those. We cannot predict what we’re capable of doing ‘X’ number of years down the line. Suffice it to say, we have a number of steps that have to be worked out. In the future we might be able to realize we can do things if the tissue is frozen a certain way, but ‘whoops, it’s too late.’ Nevertheless, I cannot say what they might be able to do in the future. One certainly can’t say there’s absolutely no chance of this working, but based on what we currently know, there are a lot of technological strikes against it,” says Chandler.
Despite the uncertainty of what is possible, Alcor’s members like their chances well enough to pony up $518 in annual dues and $80,000 and $150,000 for their respective neuro- and whole-body cryopreservations. Membership dues cover approximately one-third of Alcor’s annual budget.
“The rest comes from donations [Alcor is a 501C3 nonprofit organization],” says Jones, “but during the past two years we have had a couple of very successful fundraising efforts for research and development specifically. Last year we received a very nice donation from Martine Rothblatt, who is one of the founders of Cirius Radio. She contributed $100,000 to us and used it as a matching grant to leverage it to $200,000.”
More revenue is also generated through Alcor’s wealth preservation program, which is like the opposite of life insurance; instead of money being distributed at the time of death, it is kept in a trust until a return to life.
“One of the problems we have at the moment is that nothing is certain but death and taxes and that you can’t take it with you. So everyone who is preserved today has no resources to their own name but we are attempting to solve that by establishing trusts. Nobody wants to come back poor, although the alternative being not coming back at all, it’s OK. It’s a new kind of trust and it is not yet complete, but the intent is so that our members set up individual sub-trusts that contribute to the organization and helps with the research and returns the trust assets to the individual upon revival and the establishment of identity,” says Jones.
Pizer has been socking away the savings he has amassed from his very successful automotive upholstery business. “I set up a trust, and when I die, in my will it says whatever I have goes into the trust and it doesn’t have to go into income tax because a certain amount goes into a 501C3. I love my money and I worked hard for it,” says Pizer.
As rapid as advances in science and technology have occurred during the past few decades, there is no telling what could be possible in 2028. While Jones is reluctant to predict that Alcor’s experiment will be a success by then, she does believe the field of cryonics will continue to make contributions to the medical and scientific communities.
“Twenty years ago, who would have thought cloning was possible. Stem cell therapies have come an amazing way in just a short period of time. They can repair a heart muscle after a stroke or a heart attack. They are looking at ways to grow teeth. They are looking at ways to grow organs. There is a lot of promise there,” says Jones. “Twenty years from now stem cell therapy will be just a tremendous boon to the world and nanotechnology has come a long way as well in just a few years. It’s an exciting time to be alive, and I can’t wait to see how it all shapes out.”
|The desire to extend life and stave off death has existed since the dawn of mankind and explored through creative works of fiction for centuries. In Mary Shelley’s “Frankenstein,” published in 1818, young Dr. Victor Frankenstein is obsessed with the idea of reanimation.Shelley writes, “The raising of ghosts or devils was a promise liberally accorded by my favorite authors, the fulfillment of which I most eagerly sought…I thought, that if I could bestow animation upon lifeless matter, I might in the process of time (although I now found it impossible) renew life where death had apparently devoted the body to corruption.
Mel Brooks’ 1974 film “Young Frankenstein” is an affectionate spoof on Shelley’s novel, and its many previous film adaptations, in which an abnormal brain is inserted in the head of a giant human constructed from various body parts of the recently deceased.
In Steve Martin’s 1983 film “The Man with Two Brains,” Martin is Dr. Michael Hfuhruhurr, a renowned brain surgeon famous for his screw-top skullcap method, who telepathically falls in love with a brain and needs a body to pair it with.
As far-fetched as the story lines of these movies sound, they are not that far removed from what Alcor is attempting to accomplish.
“If you save the brain, that’s the one part of the body you have to save to say that somebody has survived,” says Alcor’s Executive Director Stephen Van Sickle.
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