Time-traveling frozen Chinese body prompts hot debate

 

 

 

 

Du Hong (left) and her daughter Zhang Siyao     Photo – http://happyxuan.com/?p=5552

 

 

 

 

SHANGHAI  |   2015-09-22 19:05:16

 

Time-traveling frozen

Chinese body

prompts hot debate

 

By Zhou Yan, Qiu Yi, Liu Shuo, Song Xiaodong, Li Yahong and Mou Xu

 

 

A science fiction editor has become the first Chinese to have her body frozen hoping for revival in the future.

The bold and costly trial by Du Hong (杜虹), 61, has sparked hope for fatally-ill patients and their families, but also an uproar among Chinese scientists, who question its technical feasibility as well as its morality.

Du, who died of pancreatic cancer on May 30, had her body frozen through a process known as cryonics and shipped to the headquarters of Alcor Life Extension Foundation in the United States.

Entrusted by Du’s daughter and son-in-law, Alcor’s surgeons removed her head and stored it in liquid nitrogen below minus 196 degrees Celsius, hoping that when technology becomes available in the future, her head can be defrosted, transplanted — most probably onto another torso because she paid only for the cryonics of her head — and she will be revived.

The arrangements were agreed between Du and her daughter Zhang Siyao shortly after Du was diagnosed with cancer last year.

They were kept private until reports of Du’s time travel attempt began to appear in Chinese newspapers last week.

 

 

“SEE YOU IN THE FUTURE”

 

“See you in the future, Mom,” was the message Zhang posted on her WeChat microblog after Du died.

The process cost 120,000 U.S. dollars, including 50,000 dollars for head storage, 30,000 for surgery and 40,000 to cover Alcor doctors’ travel expenses, said Wei Jingliang, a doctoral student who volunteered to help Du’s family communicate with the U.S. company.

Du agreed to have only her head frozen because it would cost three times as much to have the whole body frozen.

“Under their contract, Alcor will preserve Du’s brain in ultra-cold temperature for an unlimited time and as long as conditions permit, the company will bear the costs for her future revival,” Wei told Xinhua.

Figures posted on Alcor’s website show it had 1,027 registered members and 141 frozen bodies as of Aug. 31. It said Du was its 138th “patient.”

According to an open letter signed by more than 60 scientists on Alcor’s website, cryonics is “a legitimate science-based endeavor that seeks to preserve human beings, especially the human brain, by the best technology available.”

“There is a credible possibility that cryonics performed under the best conditions achievable today can preserve sufficient neurological information to permit eventual restoration of a person to full health,” it said.

Human being’s understanding of death keeps changing with medical and technological advancement, said Wei, who is studying at the Institute of Animal Sciences of the Chinese Academy of Agricultural Sciences. “Cryonics is the most plausible way to preserve physical information such as sentiments and memory.”

But Alcor is currently limited to cryonics and preservation. Revival and even ways of defrosting are not on the agenda yet.

“The 54-page contract signed between Du’s family and Alcor elaborated on the surgery process, costs and Alcor’s commitment to permanently preserve the brain,” said Wei. “It also explained the potential risks and technical flaws in cryonics. Du’s family members confirmed through their Chinese lawyer the legitimacy of the contract.”

 

 

CONTROVERSY IN THE PRESENT

 

But Du’s move has been met with skepticism in Chinese academic circles.

“I cannot imagine what will happen to the human brain at that ultra-cold temperature,” said Jiang Jiyao, a noted neurosurgeon who has carried out brain surgery by reducing brain temperature to a record low of 16 degrees Celsius.

“Brain cells are extremely vulnerable and without adequate supply of blood and oxygen, irreversible damage can be caused in just four to six minutes under normal temperature,” said Jiang.

He shrugged off the U.S. company’s idea to preserve and revive the brain as a “commercial rather than medical” one.

Even if the frozen cells were defrosted and restored, it would be impossible to rebuild the entire neurosystem, said Shanghai Jiaotong University Professor Yang Guoyuan.

Lack of technology to rebuild the nerve center is a major obstacle in head transplants, said Prof. Zhu Youhua, a specialist in organ transplants.

Last month, Chinese and Italian scientists announced they would work together to conduct the world’s first human head transplant. But Zhu said the technology still seemed too far away.

All the scientists Xinhua interviewed declined to comment on how much the revived person would remember of his or her past life. “Before the technology is proven, these are just illusions and fairy-tale ideas,” said one.

Du Hong, born in southwest China’s Chongqing Municipality, was an author of children’s books and an editor of science fictions. One of the works she edited was “The Three-Body Problem,” a science fiction trilogy which discussed cryonics and which last month won the prestigious international Hugo Award.

“I didn’t know Du, but I admired her and her family for their pioneering explorations and certainly hope to see her revived in 50 years,” said Liu Cixin, author of “The Three-Body Problem.”

Cryonics can be used by people holding out hope for future therapies for diseases that are incurable today, Liu said. “There are many methods of time travel in science fiction; cryonics is just one of them. It’s a striking question whether the rich will take advantage of the technology to see the future world.”

Liu said cryonics does not mean immortality. “Death is inevitable for all humans. If future technologies could achieve immortality, it would lead to the most terrible cases of injustice and we must never allow that to happen,” according to the writer.

Cryonics is not banned in China, but the act is meant to disrupt the life cycle and has therefore posed challenges for medical ethics, said Shen Mingxian, an ethicist with China’s International Human Genome Program.

“While the brain is the main commander of a person’s mentality, other parts of the human body can also affect the brain. In Du’s case, when her brain is restored and transplanted into a different body, the identity of the new person will remain controversial,” said Prof. Zhu Hongwei, a leading neurosurgeon at Beijing’s Xuanwu Hospital.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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