One of the best science fiction franchises of all time, Matt Groening’s Futurama, centers around a modern-day loser being accidentally cryogenically frozen and awakening far in the future to a strange new world. While this aspect of cryogenics has been a staple of sci-fi for years, cryogenic preservation truly does have the potential to enable terminally ill individuals to be frozen and reanimated in the future when medicine might have found a way to cure them.
As transhumanists and anti-aging fanatics look for more ways to stave off death, cryogenic freezing has become more popular. A massive “Center for Immortality” was constructed in Texas in 2016 which was designed to someday house 50,000 frozen humans. Also just last year, a fourteen-year-old girl was cryogenically frozen after winning a landmark court case to be able to make that choice for herself. One big hurdle stands in the way of cryogenic preservation, however: the difficulties in successfully thawing frozen tissues without damaging them. As tissues thaw, ice crystals can form and cause tissues to crack.
That hurdle might have just been crossed thanks to a groundbreaking technique recently announced that has shown success at thawing cryogenically-frozen tissues without damage. University of Minnesota researchers developed the technique, which involves pre-conditioning organs with a solution of silica-coated iron oxide nanoparticles prior to freezing.
Those particles uniformly warm frozen tissues when bombarded with electromagnetic waves, ensuring that tissues thaw slowly and evenly. While many outlets jumped to conclusions about this technique and predicted the triumphant return of Walt Disney in the near future, the researchers have so far only predicted that this technique might enable cryogenic preservation of organs, not complete human bodies:
With continued breakthroughs in preconditioning and/or postconditioning of organs, improved perfusion and vitrification protocols, and other enabling technologies that are being brought to bear to successfully vitrify human organs, we believe that nanowarming can converge with and enable these technologies to help make organ cryopreservation a reality.
Nevertheless, University of Minnesota biomedical engineering professor and lead researcher John Bischof is optimistic that this technique is an important first step in developing techniques to thaw cryogenically-frozen tissues of any kind:
This is the first time that anyone has been able to scale up to a larger biological system and demonstrate successful, fast, and uniform warming hundreds of degrees Celsius per minute of preserved tissue without damaging the tissue.
Even though Walt Disney might not be thawed anytime soon to haunt Disneyland as an ice zombie, the researchers are hopeful that this technique could help save individuals on organ transplant waiting lists. Currently, up to 60% of donated organs are discarded due to the lack of viable methods for freezing and thawing them. Even if this technique results in saving only half of the organs donated each year, these waiting lists could be completely eliminated.