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What science says about Michigan lab’s plan to bring frozen bodies back to life

snow covered graveyard
Sarah Courbet
One challenge for the cryonics industry: ice crystals that damage the cells of frozen bodies.

A recent court case in London has been raising the profile of the cryonics industry in general. But it has brought special attention to the Clinton-township based Cryonics Institute. At dispute in the court case were the rights of a terminally-ill 14-year-old British girl who wanted to have her body frozen upon death.

Her parents had opposing views of that wish, and they took their argument to court. The judge upheld the girl's right to be cryogenically frozen. She died on Oct. 17, and her body was transferred to the Cryonics Institute in November.

While the legal dispute over the girl's dying wish has been settled, the science of cryonics is anything but.

Hank Greely is a professor of law and genetics at Stanford. He says that while it is possible to freeze and resuscitate small bits of life like embryos or eggs, larger organisms present a far more complicated puzzle. Ice crystals can form within or between cells, causing irreparable damage. And so Greely is skeptical of the services offered by organizations like the Cryonics Institute.

“The bottom line is that no one has yet come anywhere close to bringing back to life even a mouse, or even an organism smaller than a mouse because of the cellular damage that freezing does,” he told us. “If they could successfully revive a mouse I would listen to them a lot more carefully.”

Greely points to the human brain as a particularly tough challenge for the cryonics industry. The brain contains about one billion cells. But in order to revive a person – and not just a body – the trillions of connections between those cells must also be preserved.

“You might in theory be able to bringing back a finger, but bringing back a brain is much, much more complicated,” Greely said. “I think at least for the foreseeable future, it’s as close to impossible as anything in science.”

So are organizations like the Cryonics Institute, which often charge $40,000 for a single body, committing fraud by offering these services? Greely says no, as long as they’re honest about what they can and cannot do.

“I think it’s an incredible waste of money," he told us. "But we let people waste money all the time.”

Listen to the full interview above. 

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