Vol. 23, Issue 1: Fall 2015

The Real Frankenstein

Albert Wang

Dr. Victor Frankenstein created a monster: a monster that proceeded to attack and ravage before finally coming head-to-head with its creator in perhaps the most emotional and tense of encounters. Despite creating a monster in the process, Dr. Frankenstein achieved something humans have longed to do; he acquired the skills necessary to revive the dead, the potential for humans to never die. Now, for the first time, humans may actually possess such knowledge. Before considering whether eternal life is something we want, we must sit back and revel at the possibilities and technology that may allow us to do that. Specifically, we have knowledge of how to freeze bodies, in the hope that in the future there will be cures for insufferable diseases.

About 200 individuals have signed up to give their bodies to cryonics research or research in the technology of freezing bodies, in hopes that they will be rewarded with eternal life in the future. The biggest stumbling block for scientists, however, is not the freezing process, but rather the unfreezing process, because of problems with maintaining the body’s functionality. As scientists spend hours in labs all over the world looking for a way to decode this complicated process, Nature, the very power we are trying to work our way around, has already gifted the answer to a species. Alaskan Wood Frogs earned their fame through the incredible temperature changes they withstand. Able to withstand temperatures below those viable for human life, these frogs seem frozen in time during the winter months, then melt and return back to life in the spring. These frogs provide a significant linkage between the challenge to eternal life cryonics aims to solve and what this species naturally seems to possess.

A key factor to the wood frogs’ success has been their ability to produce cryoprotectants. Cryoprotectants increase the chance of survival after freezing by preventing intracellular ice formation, stabilizing membranes and macromolecules, and serving as antioxidants, metabolic substrates, and metabolic regulators. As described by D.J. Larson, Ph.D in the Journal of Experimental Biology in 2004, these cryoprotectants allow Alaskan wood frogs to survive in temperatures below freezing for up to six months with a minimum of near -20 degrees Celsius. With this information, researchers have begun considering the possibilities of cryoprotectants in the study of cryonics, since the biggest problem associated with cryonics has been the process of survival upon unfreezing.

It is already known that bodies can be unfrozen and function for a short period of time, but survival never lasts longer than a few hours. The freezing and subsequent unfreezing processes have simply caused too much damage to the human body for it to function as well as it previously did. Scientists have already learned why cryoprotectants work for wood frogs. Currently, the issue is not that cryoprotectants cannot be used in humans, but rather, it is not known how they would function. In fact, cryoprotectants are already naturally produced in the human body; however they are an artifact of ancient human history, and carry out a slightly different function than they do in wood frogs.

While researchers continue to investigate the possibilities of cryoprotectants in the human body, two major biotech companies, Cryonics Institute and Alcor, have already begun accepting clients who wish to be frozen in hopes of being revived in the future. Since these companies have already developed a working process of freezing, the future of the field lies in the unfreezing process. Scientists continue to experiment and test different species of wood frogs, their cryoprotectants, and their respective freezing and unfreezing capabilities. These teams hope that a more conclusive analysis can be reached in the next few years on the workings of cryoprotectants, as well as how they could potentially be applied to humans.

About the Author

Albert is currently a freshman at UC Berkeley studying bioengineering and also looking to double major in French. When he isn’t in class trying to figure out howmedicine, engineering, and the humanities relate and come together as one, he is likely high stepping on Maxwell Field with Cal Band.