7th Alcor Conference, October 5-7, 2007 Part I

Another wonderful Alcor conference!! Congratulations and thanks to all the organizers, speakers, and panelists. It was great meeting life extensionists and cryonicists from all over the world.

Arizona lobbyist Barry Aarons gave the welcome address. It is good to see Alcor's continuing political engagement, which Alcor needs to survive. But this time, there was a hint of something more than just survival expected from current elected leaders ... trying to get Alcor recognized as part of the biotechnology industry in Arizona.

Susan Klein emceed. It was great seeing Bruce and Susan Klein, founders of the Immortality Institute, active at this event.

Steve Bridge, former Alcor president, spoke first. He introduced the tone and scope of the conference, clearing up misconceptions for those new to cryonics. We are not interested in cryonics because we are a hare-brained cult, or because we have an obsession with high technology or science fiction. We are interested in cryonics because we seriously want to preserve life.

Steve noted that fewer than 20 scientists in the world are working on cryonics today. Perhaps, as he noted, this is because early cryonicsts did not try hard enough to convince scientists to work on it. I think, however, scientists would have made up their own minds anyway. After it became clear that resuscitation from extremely low temperatures would not be easy, it was obviously not 'low hanging fruit.'

Scientists find big-goal projects intractable. How many cancer researchers think of their research as about a cure for cancer? At most, modestly, they think of their research as perhaps a small brick on the path toward a cure for cancer. They think of their research as positioned in the context of a more immediately tractable problem, of either a theoretical or a practical kind, a sub-goal.

What is a sub-goal for cryonics? Freezing organs for transplantation comes to mind, and it is here that most of the work so far has been done. Yet decades of failure have convinced the organ transplant field not to expect extremely long-term, extremely low-temperature storage of most organs any time soon. Yet there is the possibility that continuing advances in medicine and biology and biophysics will uncover possibilities for new approaches.

Steve also noted that the word 'dead' should be reserved for information-theoretic death, a point that was echoed throughout the conference by other speakers. But if we accept this consensus, what word should we use for the condition in which we would expect biostasis to be applied? In the case of terminal, incurable degenerative brain disorders, this does not even correspond to the fiction of legal death. Inevitable Impending Identity-Critical Information Loss? That would make an awkward acronym. :)

Steve also reminded us that we still do not know if cryonics preserves people. How do we know we are preserving identity? How do we know long-term memories and personality are being preserved? What are the physical correlates of identity in the brain? These questions are really the most fundamental of all. Even if low-temperature biostasis were reversible, if resuscitation from such a state were possible, would the patient be amnesiac? brain-damaged? insane? Information-theoretic criteria are not yet able to be framed in biological terms.

Next, Brian Wowk, Ph.D., from 21st Century Medicine, spoke. He reviewed the process of cryosuspension by vitrification and the theory behind it. The goal of vitrification is to prevent ice formation. In ideal cryonics cases, the brain may vitrify without ice formation, although ice may form elsewhere in the body (in a whole body case). In cryoprotection, 60% of the body's water is replaced by cryoprotectant ("anti-freeze" to prevent ice crystallization). Long-term potentiation (LTP), thought to be a mechanism involved in long-term memory, persists in vitrified brain slices, after rewarming, in an animal model. The machinery for forming memory, if not memory, survives vitrification.

Obstacles to reversing vitrification include cryoprotectant toxicity, ischemic damage, and fracturing. The latter could be solved by higher-temperature storage, though this would be more expensive, risky, and require more care. Methods for repairing damage at the cellular or tissue level (regeneration) need not require nanotechnology, and work on repairing or preventing cell/tissue damage is of course a continuing focus of mainstream medical research.

Stephen Van Sickle, current Alcor Executive Director, spoke next on Alcor's research. How do anti-ischemia drugs relate to cryoprotection? The Critical Care Research drug protocol has still not yet been verified with cryoprotection.

Alcor is setting up a cardiopulmonary bypass research lab with rats. Stephen noted that part of the biostasis protocol is already known to be reversible -- about 2 hours into blood washout and lowering of body temperature to around 2 degrees C. At some point during perfusion of cryoprotectant, though, the process becomes irreversible. It would be interesting to know when! And why. (note: cryoprotectant toxicity above).

Alcor is also continuing to develop intermediate temperature storage (ITS) to prevent fracturing. Unfortunately, fractures can occur well before safe long-term storage temperatures are reached. Sometimes fractures do NOT occur until almost liquid nitrogen temperatures, which suggest it is theoretically possible to avoid fractures with ITS. Alcor is now studying the problem with noninvasive visual imaging, as well as auditory detection. Alcor is also planning to use a fiber optic spectrometer to measure blood low (by near infrared/NIR) to try to measure perfusate volume and flow rate in brain, maybe modeling concentrations in the brain, and also perhaps to determine if there is ice formation in the brain by scattering from ice.

Next, Tanya Jones spoke. She emphasized the importance of stabilization (cooling, cardiopulmonary support, medications, and perfusion with organ preservation solutions). Only about half of Alcor's patients were stabilized. Those who were not were generally nonideal cases who were 'down' too long to initiate stabilization without causing more harm. This is a continuing problem -- that people don't get sick at convenient times and with plenty of advance warning! Stabilization buys between 24-48 hours worth of time to transport patient to Alcor for more cooling and longterm care.

Alcor is moving toward a largely automated whole body perfusion system with literal bells and whistles. Hopefully this will help prevent human error and assist in the gathering of high-quality data. Stabilization kits are also being reorganized, so that there are fewer boxes to fly out when necessary. Alcor continues to work on a stabilization network - working toward improved training and recruiting new medical personnel. About half of Alcor's U.S. patients are resident in California, with the rest mostly in Arizona, Florida, Texas, and New York. Alcor would eventually like to deploy 14 regional stabilization kits for the U.S. and worldwide, and conduct local training on the regional equipment.

Next, Ralph Merkle, Ph.D., spoke. He felt that cryonicists were being too conservative about cryopreservation preserving memory. (Why?) Ralph noted the slow pace of nanotechnology, but observed that resuscitation of cryonics patients was its most ambitious application. He estimated that it would be about 5 years before labs began experimental verification of some of the theoretical work he and Freitas have done. He said practical nanotechnology will result in a revolution in medicine. Cryonics revival will require mature nanotechnology, which in turn will require the funding of long-term system design, which is largely absent now. Almost all spending is on very near-term applications, he said. Nanotech research now is not focused on a goal, what to make with nanotechnology. Cryonics provides the answer, according to Ralph.

The next speaker was Dr. Michael West, a gerontologist and COB of Advanced Cell Technology (a regenerative medicine company) and former CEO of Geron Corporation, without a doubt the most prominent person to address a cryonics conference since I have been going to them. Listening to Michael West was certainly one of the high points of the conference for me.

Interestingly, his presentation touched not only on the technical concepts behind his research, but also the deep cultural, even mythological framework, in which such research might be understood. Perhaps he has developed this approach because of the fierce controversy surrounding human embryonic stem cells, which he and his colleagues were the first in the world to isolate. (On one slides, Michael wryly noted one of his embryonic stem cell lines that President George W. Bush had "blessed".)

Michael reminded the audience that the modern biological distinction between germ (reproductive) cell lines and somatic (regular body) cell lines exposes a dualism that hints at the biological origin of aging and death.

Originally, we may presume, all early life cells were, or at least tried to be, immortal. These early cells were predecessors of today's germ cells (and their renegade imitators, cancer cells) in that they had no fixed lifespan, repaired themselves, and reproduced indefinitely. In one way of thinking about it, somatic cells evolved to help germ cells survive and reproduce, but somatic cells were denied immortality, and this gave rise to death, which continues to beset us multicellular organisms.

Michael compared the differences between germ and somatic lines to the difference between the Greek concepts Zoe and Bios. These are two words for life, one the eternal life of nature, the other the temporary life of an individual person. The mythological analogues of Zoe were Demeter and Dionysus, two gods of the eternal fecundity of nature (in grain and grape harvests). Nature performs the immortal renewal of life. "How do we transfer immortality to individuals?" Michael asked. "How do we conduct 'immortality transfer'?"

Cells can immortalize, he noted. Telomeres shorten in somatic cells over time, whereas germ cells' telomeres don't. Telomeres at the end of chromosomes are like fuses burning down. They cause cells to senesce. Michael again drew comparisons from Greek mythology, this time to the Fates who drew out, measured, and cut the thread of life at its predetermined limit.

Michael and his collaborators have in fact engineered immortal cells. The enzyme telomerase can rebuild the telomeres as they decrease, so that they become effectively immortal. Embryonic stem cells in laboratory petri dishes actually start to form tissues, even brain tissue (neocortex).

Michael dispelled the myth that the cloned sheep Dolly was born with prematurely old telomeres. Untrue, he said. In fact, cow somatic cells, by nuclear transfer cloning, caused cells to OVER-reset, giving them even longer lifespans than normal. Human therapeutic cloning is possible, Michael said. Wakayama et al. (2000) showed in a mouse model that mice clones could have lengthened lifespan. Mitochondria can also be rejuvenated by nuclear transfer, and cells can be cloned so that not they are not just nuclear but also mitochondrial clones.

No one has yet cloned human embryonic stem cells by nuclear transfer, mainly because it is difficult. It has been done in other animals, though. Medical work on embryonic stem cell therapy includes new approaches to macular degeneration and vascular disease. There are so many types of cells that researchers are still studying them to determine how they make complex somatic cells.

Michael's final slide, of Isis and Osiris, was quite moving. In the Egyptian myth, Osiris is killed, but his wife Isis searches until she finds a way to revive him using the Cord of Life. In other words, love conquers death.

The next speaker was Aubrey De Grey, who kindly provided a NEW TALK. The topic was how leaders in various scientific fields and especially publication editors like himself could do more to educate scientists about the legal fiction of death and the possibility of seeing cryopreservation as life-saving critical care. "We have a moral duty to demystify the 'yuck factor,'" he said. It will be difficult to demystify the topic, but Aubrey believes it is possible. "A logical, fair argument is easier to make and most likely to succeed eventually."

Aubrey's presentation was followed by a panel from Alcor's Board of Directors. The most contentious issue raised was the possibility of having Alcor's membership elect its Board (it is currently a self-perpetuating Board). The panel gave a good argument that many special-purpose nonprofits with large assets such as museums or hospitals have self-perpetuating Boards, and a quick show of hands indicated that the majority of the audience (although they may not have been all Alcor members), approved of keeping thing the way they were. 'If it ain't broke, don't fix it.'


Anonymous said...

Actually, that was Bruce Klein, not Eric Klein. Bruce is a much nicer guy.

Arcturus Gregory said...

Oh ok - thanks! I'll change that. I don't know where I got Eric from... don't think I have met him.