Sun, Oct 16, 2005 - Page 7 News List

US lab promises eternal life after deep freeze

CHILLY DREAM A facility in Arizona contains 19 frozen bodies and 50 heads, from customers who paid up to US$150,000 on the chance they can one day be revived


Alcor's lab looks a bit like something out of a low-budget 1970s science fiction film. But for those who believe, it offers the hope of eternal life.

Alcor bills itself as world leader in cryonics -- the freezing of bodies and body parts in hopes of restoring them to life when technology and cures become available.

The field got big publicity three years ago after US baseball great Ted Williams died at age 84. He wanted to have his head frozen by the Alcor Life Extension Foundation, prompting a legal battle by his family to bring it to Florida, where the self-described leader in the field -- which deep-freezes its "customers" at its outwardly unspectacular facility in the hot Arizona desert.

Getting there as soon as possible after death is one of the biggest challenges for Alcor's team of doctors and medical assistants, who often wait for hours -- even days -- at a client's deathbed. When the patient dies, the body has to be transported to Alcor and prepared for freezing with liquid nitrogen quickly.

Speedy removal of body fluids helps minimize damage to cell structures and the brain, Alcor physician Michael Perry says.

Fred Chamberlain, who founded Alcor in 1972, firmly believed that cryonics could make people immortal, and many clients hope that future scientific discoveries will be able to cure their fatal illnesses. Others just want to come back to life sometime in the future.

Tanya Jones, director of operations at Alcor, said scientists may one day develop ways to awaken cells and get them to grow. A full body freeze costs US$150,000; a head is preserved for US$80,000.

Alcor's headquarters on a dusty side street is plain-looking. But inside, a room with a 4m high ceiling holds gleaming grey canisters with 19 frozen bodies and 50 heads.

Tubs of chemicals dot the concrete floor and small metal tubes of different colours hang from the walls. An old but powerful computer sits on a wobbly table.

More than 1,000 people in the US wear Alcor's black plastic armband, which requires doctors and police officers to notify Alcor if they suddenly die. Every year, six to 12 bodies are completely or partly preserved.

Some people want only their heads frozen not just because it's cheaper, but because the head is the easiest to preserve using today's technology, Jones said. They also fancy a different body in their new life.

Alcor's clientele is mixed. The oldest was 92 when he died. Many relatively young people also have placed faith in technology that could bring them back to life. There are also 29 frozen animals, including the cats and dogs of some customers who hope they will be awakened at the same time to enjoy their new life together.

When a body arrives in the operations room, its fluids -- especially the blood -- are drained and replaced with liquid nitrogen, freezing the body.

Medical technicians do the delicate work by hand. That's why Bill Voice, one of the experts on Alcor's 12-member team of preservation specialists, has life-size dummies in his office for use in training to ensure proper handling of the bodies.

Logistics and the transport of the body to Scottsdale are critical, Voice said. It takes an average of 17 hours for a client's body to reach Alcor's operation rooms. Alcor's future plans call for potential Australian and British clients to be offered a chance to be frozen before being taken to the US.

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