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Stainless-steel containers for freezing and storing bodies in super-cold liquid nitrogen at the Shandong Yinfeng Life Science Research Institute, China’s only cryonics centre. Photo: The Shandong Yinfeng Life Science Research Institute

Freezing bodies for ‘reanimation’ in China and why the country’s cryonics tech has the potential to leapfrog the West

  • The Shandong Yinfeng Life Science Research Institute has 10 bodies on ice already with dozens more who have committed to its service
  • With its lack of religious obstacles – which hinder acceptance of ‘coming back to life’ in the West – China could quickly catch up and lead in the cryonics area

The Shandong Yinfeng Life Science Research Institute is the only cryonics research centre in China and one of only four such institutes in the world. The centres provide cryonic suspension: preserving bodies at extremely low temperatures with the hope of one day “reviving” them. But Yinfeng’s research goes further, and has the potential to revolutionise organ transplant, body-part reattachment and other medical treatments.

Cryonics covers the techniques of preserving a human body at extremely low temperatures with the aim of cheating death. It involves storing bodies in stainless-steel containers in super-cold liquid nitrogen.

Cryonics in China started in 2015. Du Hong, an author from Chongqing and an editor of Liu Cixin’s world-renowned science fiction title The Three-Body Problem, which revolves around cryonics, became the first person from China to undergo the suspension procedure after she died from pancreatic cancer that year.

Du’s remains were preserved at the Alcor Life Extension Foundation, a US cryonics service provider based in Phoenix, Arizona. In the same year, the Shandong Yinfeng Life Science Research Institute was set up in Jinan, in eastern China. (The other two global cryonics institutes are the Cryonics Institute in the US state of Michigan, and KrioRus in Russia.)

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All four centres provide cryonic suspension and storage services for deceased humans and pets, expecting one day to use advanced technology to “reanimate” them. Yinfeng also partners with mainland Chinese hospitals and universities to conduct research in the area of cryobiology, which studies the effects of low temperatures on living things.

Aaron Drake, the director of the clinical response centre at Yinfeng, which he joined in 2016, was previously Alcor’s medical response director. He explains how the centre in China differs from the others.

“Alcor doesn’t partner with any medical facilities. That’s because it doesn’t operate on a medical licence. They have to follow the laws under the funeral industry. At Alcor and the Cryonics Institute, once the body is put in liquid nitrogen, that’s it. It’s just a storage facility. It’s like people have a frozen burial,” Drake says.

“But the Chinese government doesn’t want us to be just some project that freezes somebody. The government wants to see how this project can benefit all areas of medicine. So we work with surgeons, anaesthesiologists and perfusionists [people who operate heart-lung machines]. It is a large, research-based project, which attracted me to join them.”

Aaron Drake, director of Yinfeng’s clinical response centre. Photo: The Shandong Yinfeng Life Science Research Institute

One of the biggest obstacles that continues to plague organ-transplant procedures is the short window of opportunity to get a viable organ from the deceased and implant it into the patient whose life depends on it.

“Take the human heart as an example,” Drake says. “The available time is about six hours. The tissue will start to die after six hours.”

Within those six hours the organ has to be removed, cleaned, prepared, transported and implanted, while blood tests have to be done on the donor and recipient to see whether their blood types match. That’s very challenging, Drake says, “especially in China where they haven’t developed the logistics infrastructure for such a programme. China is so large that matching up patients from one part of the country to the other doesn’t work very well, as compared to European countries.

“Consider if you could extend that from six hours to six days during which the organ is stored in an ultra-cold environment and continues to be perfused [have blood circulating through it] – then you will have all the time in the world. China is the first country that’s taking this on and Yinfeng is leading in this research area. China might leapfrog over everyone else because they’ve taken a new approach.”

More than 100 people visited our centre last year, and 60 people have become members who have made a commitment that they want to do the cryonics procedure
Li Qingping, Yinfeng publicity director

Yinfeng is working with the University of Science and Technology of China in Anhui province in researching the preservation of pancreatic cells, and with Shandong University’s Qilu Hospital on the preservation of ovarian cells. Drake says each organ requires different techniques to be cryonically preserved. “The larger the organ, the harder it becomes. The equipment you have to use becomes larger as well.”

In spite of the difficulties, Drake says once the solutions for preserving all organs are found, the prospect of being able to revive the whole human body from a frozen state will be high.

“It’s like you solve a very complex math problem by breaking it down and solving each individual part. Then you put these parts together and collectively solve the math question.”

A human body being prepared for cryonics preservation at Yinfeng. Photo: The Shandong Yinfeng Life Science Research Institute

The 10 patients being cryonically preserved at Yinfeng now might seem a small number when compared with the 181 at Alcor. But Li Qingping, publicity director at the institute, says it has attracted growing interest from people in China over the past few years.

“More than 100 people visited our centre last year, and 60 people have become members who have made a commitment that they want to do the cryonics procedure,” Li says, adding that they have also paid fees to support that commitment.

Drake says Chinese culture accepts cryonics more easily than Western cultures do.

“Western religious beliefs are turned off by this” as Westerners don’t know how this would work if God has plans for them after they die, he says, adding that they don’t know if their religion allows for them to be frozen. Although Yinfeng started its cryonics work 50 years later than its Western counterparts, the potential for the technology in China is much greater without the religious obstacles, he suggests.

Drake with Yinfeng Biological Group chief scientist Shen Baijun. Photo: The Shandong Yinfeng Life Science Research Institute

Yinfeng is part of the Yinfeng Biological Group, whose work includes DNA testing, umbilical cord blood storage, aesthetic medicine and stem cell research.

Besides organ transplants, Drake says cryonics research is also being applied in ways to treat heart attack, stroke and blunt trauma patients.

People who have heart attacks or strokes can have their bodies cooled in hypothermic environments to prevent tissue damage from occurring. For soldiers back from the battlefield who have amputated limbs, they can be put in a hypothermic state so they can be transported back to a medical facility for limb reattachment.”

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While the idea of reviving the dead might be a far-off, if not far-fetched, possibility, Drake thinks cryonics is a technology with lively prospects.

“People today die of cancer, Parkinson’s and other brain diseases. If we go forward a hundred years, these illnesses may easily be fixed. People died from heart attack, strokes and influenza in the early 1900s. But today, modern medicine can fix these problems. So if we can buy patients some additional time without allowing any damage to occur, we may be able to cure their cancer one day and give them the opportunity to live longer.”
This article appeared in the South China Morning Post print edition as: Tanks offer hope of a second chance