Cheating death? Elderly writer is the first known Chinese to embrace cryogenics, her head now frozen by lab in Arizona

PUBLISHED : Friday, 18 September, 2015, 2:30pm
UPDATED : Saturday, 19 September, 2015, 12:23am

An elderly woman from central China who died after battling pancreatic cancer has had her head cryogenically frozen in the US by a scientific research institute in hope that the technology will be available later to restore her to consciousness

This is the first known case of a Chinese subject in the field of cryonics (also known as cryogenics), the controversial practice of preserving a human body at extremely low temperatures with the aim of cheating death. It involves storing bodies in aluminium containers in super-cold liquid nitrogen.

Du Hong, a 61-year-old female writer of children's literature from the choked megacity of Chongqing, died on May 30 after complications arising from a tumour in her pancreas, her daughter Zhang Siyao told thepaper.cn, an online news media based in Shanghai. 

“You know what, if it works, maybe when we meet again you will be younger than I am. Maybe you will be taking care of me," Zhang reportedly told her mother on her death bed. 

As the younger woman had previously reached out to Alcor Life Extension Foundation, a cryonics service provider based in Arizona, two doctors from the foundation were on hand to treat the body once Du passed.

In China, the waiting doctors immediately replaced Du's blood with a liquid that cannot freeze so as to spare the body tissue from suffering irreversible damage. 

Her body was then sent to Alcor’s headquarters in Scottsdale city, Arizona, where her head was separated and preserved at minus 196 degrees Celsius. 

Alcor said it charges 2 million yuan (US$314,205) for whole-body cryonics, a sum far beyond the reach of the Chinese family. 

After selling their small apartment in Beijing, and with the aid of Du's life savings, they were able to sign up for a programme costing 750,000 yuan that only freezes the head.

As they expected fierce resistance from Du over the expenses incurred, the family told her that her body was being donated for the purpose of scientific experiments, said her son-in-law Lu Chen. 

"Mother said that whether [cryonics] would be able to find a breakthrough in the next 50 years remained a mystery, but that she did not mind her remains being used for experiments,” he was quoted as saying by thepaper.cn. 

WATCH: What lies in the future for cryonics?

“She said: ‘There ought to be someone who they can test these new technologies on’,” the Chongqing Evening News reported Lu as having added.

China has been regarded as a potential gold mine for purveyors of cryonics if they can find a way to restore consciousness to frozen tissue, and Du’s story has already made headlines across China.

Alchor confirmed to the South China Morning Post last year that it had clients from China, but declined to reveal their identities. 

Other companies operating in this field in Russia and the US told the Post they were hugely interested in the Chinese market because patients there are so “open-minded" to such technology, partly due to the absence of a dominant religion governing against such challenges to the laws of nature.

Beijing’s policy of forced cremation has also prompted many wealthy people in China to search for ways to preserve their bodies overseas. 

Traditional Chinese culture rules that the body must be intact to prepare for the afterlife. People would typically bury their dead and burn paper money to symbolise how they will have a more comfortable in the afterlife.

But professor Huang Wei, a historian at Sichuan University in Chengdu, said: "Chinese people have always been interested in body preservation and life extension. Cryonics is a new option from the West which will certainly interest those who can afford it."

Nonetheless, the practice of freezing bodies to one day resuscitate them has met with much resistance and scepticism by the mainstream Chinese scientific community.

Zheng Congyi, a professor of biology and director of the China Centre for Type Culture Collection in Wuhan University, in Hubei province, said the idea of extending people’s lives in this way was "impossible in the foreseeable future". 

"No technology can preserve a human organ for a long time. That is why organ transplants must be carried out almost simultaneously on the donor and the recipient," he told the SCMP. 

"If we can't exercise cryonics on organs, how can we hope to preserve and revive a head or entire body?" 

Chinese science fiction writer Liu Cixin, whose Three-Body Problem won the Hugo Award for best novel this year, told thepaper.cn that he was "full of respect" for Du’s decision to commit her body to science. Du edited Liu’s novel. 

"She can use her 'body' to explore the future of science after the end of life. That is very courageous," he was quoted as saying.