Startup Brings New Hope to the Pursuit of Reviving Frozen Bodies

Startup Brings New Hope to the Pursuit of Reviving Frozen Bodies

Laura Deming sees potential in a corner of longevity science with decades of failed promises.

Cradle Healthcare’s Laura Deming at the startup’s lab in South San Francisco.

Photographer: Jason Henry for Bloomberg Businessweek

Laura Deming started investing in human longevity as a teenager and, over the past decade or so, has become one of the most discerning investors in a field full of wild, overhyped ideas. Now she’s putting her venture capitalist hat to the side and wading into one of the more controversial areas of longevity technology as a founder of her own startup.

On Monday, Deming plans to unveil Cradle Healthcare Co., which she’s been running in secret for the past three years. The company’s focus is on trying to develop technology around reversible cryonics, placing people with illnesses into a frozen state and then reviving them at some stage in the future when cures for their ailments have arrived.

Deming, a child prodigy in biotech, already had a laboratory research job when she was just 12 years old.Photographer: Jason Henry for Bloomberg Businessweek

Researchers and companies have pursued cryonics for decades, but the practice still requires numerous breakthroughs to have any hope of reaching mainstream use. Deming’s bet is that there’s much to discover around how cryonics and rewarming can work and that Cradle can turn the tech into a real thing.

Deming says other companies tend to place too much emphasis on freezing and not enough on reviving. “We’re working on reversible cryo, which means building procedures that can cryopreserve and rewarm with function,” Deming, 30, says in her first interview about the startup. “We have spent years looking at this problem, and we wouldn’t have chosen to work on this, and really double down on our approaches, if we weren’t convinced it’s feasible.”

Cryonics is used in limited form already. In vitro fertilization treatments, for example, dip tiny embryos into a cryoprotectant solution, then into liquid nitrogen, so they can be stored for many years until they’re ready for use. Recently, a group at the University of Minnesota froze rat kidneys for 100 days, then rewarmed them and transplanted them into other rats, where the organs regained full function after about a month.

The challenge with freezing organs, brains or whole bodies is figuring out how not to cause irreparable damage. When ice crystals form during the freezing process, they can tear and burst cells. This can be combated to a degree by freezing tissue very quickly and shielding it with chemicals, the cryoprotectants, that blunt the crystallization process. Still, it’s very difficult to treat large amounts of tissue in a uniform manner with these techniques, as the innards of an organ or body prove tougher to reach with cold and chemicals.

“The problems get worse the bigger the tissue samples get,” says Ariel Zeleznikow-Johnston, a neuroscientist at Monash University in Melbourne and the author of an upcoming book called The Future Loves You: How and Why We Should Abolish Death. “You get these big differences in temperature gradients. People have tried to get around this with cryoprotectants, but they are toxic in and of themselves.”

Cryonics is often seen as something of a scientific backwater. It’s generally accepted as a way to preserve organs for transplants, but people tend to scoff at the idea of freezing whole brains or bodies. “It comes with a whole bunch of baggage,” say Zeleznikow-Johnston. “I don’t think it gets taken very seriously a lot of the time, and it raises questions around exactly what is life and what is death and if we should be doing this.”

Deming brings some much-needed credibility to the field. She was a child prodigy in biotech who secured a laboratory research job at the University of California, San Francisco, when she was 12 years old. At 14, she was accepted into the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and then dropped out after two years to take one of the first entrepreneurial fellowships offered by the billionaire Peter Thiel. At 19, she created the Longevity Fund, which invested in more than a dozen companies. Today, in addition to running Cradle, Deming is co-founder and partner at Age1, a new longevity-focused investment firm.

She’s convinced that the stigma around cryonics has hindered promising research and that Cradle has already found many seemingly viable avenues to explore. It has approached the technical challenges in two main ways—a new type of cooling and rewarming machine and a lab that’s testing all manner of cryoprotectant combinations. The company has raised $48 million in investment but declines to identify its backers.

Cradle’s cooling and rewarming machine.Photographer: Jason Henry for Bloomberg Businessweek

The machine at the heart of Cradle’s research is about the size of a mini fridge. Its main job, for the moment, is to experiment on thin slices of rodent brains. A piece of a brain is placed near the center of the machine and doused with cryoprotectant. It is then enclosed inside a chamber, sandwiched between layers of sapphire and steel. A stream of liquid nitrogen is ejected from a nozzle and blown over the chamber to cryopreserve the slice. Cradle can then warm the brain fragment back up inside of the same machine, using an electromagnet that heats the steel layer of the chamber.

Just to the side of this machine in Cradle’s main research laboratory is another contraption for producing cryoprotectant concoctions. It has dozens of tubes that can be fed with various chemicals, which, in turn, coat brain slice samples.

A brain-slice sample holder for use with Cradle’s testing machine.Photographer: Jason Henry for Bloomberg Businessweek

Many of Cradle’s 15 employees contributed to the design of these machines. Some of the key innovations came from Hunter Davis, the company’s co-founder and chief science officer. Davis, 33, has degrees in physics, chemistry and economics and, before signing on with Cradle, was busy doing things like building lasers to study the quantum mechanical properties of photosynthesis in plants.

For Davis, the key to these early experiments is a quick trial-and-error process. Cradle can load a brain slice into the well and cool it down to -150C (-238F) in a couple of seconds, then rewarm it to a temperature of the company’s choosing in another couple of seconds. Cradle is experimenting with numerous samples a day. The company says it’s successfully cooled and rewarmed a slice of rodent brain and found the sample retained the electrical activity in its neurons. Cradle plans to soon publish some of its research. It’s working on other systems to deal with larger tissue samples, though it declined to disclose details.

Davis at the Cradle research lab in South San Francisco.Photographer: Jason Henry for Bloomberg Businessweek

Deming and Davis describe the ideal cryopreservation process as one that takes a larger sample down to -130C while forming a minimal amount of ice crystals. If done right, the liquid in the sample should largely skip past the ice formation stage and go straight to a point of becoming viscous and largely inert. “At that temperature, everything is completely stopped,” Davis says. “The liquid goes into this amorphous state that is kind of like amber or a glass pane.” This would need to be done with the help of cryoprotectants that are nontoxic, which is another hurdle facing the cryonics field.

The most famous cryonics organization is the nonprofit Alcor Life Extension Foundation, founded in 1972. It has a couple hundred bodies and heads stored in specialized containers in Arizona. The organization, however, has yet to show that it can revive anyone or any brain. “It’s like people have built a rocket, put it on a pad and left it there and said, ‘We did it,’” Deming says. “But the question is, ‘Does it work?’ Just cryopreserving something is not enough.”

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