Walking over to the law office of Oh & Son through the bustling streets of downtown Seoul, CEO Han Hyeong-tae of Human High Tech casually explained how he brought KrioRus, a cryonics service provider, to Korea. Initial contracts with the Russian company seemed to be no less casual.
“During the talks, I didn’t get to see them in person, but we talked online. We signed a five-year contract in November,” Han said. “And we launched the service in Korea on Feb. 1.”
“Them” referred to Valerija Pride, co-founder of KrioRus, and other officials from the company. For the past decade, KrioRus has been one of the two cryonics companies in the world – along with U.S.-based Alcor - that has been freezing and storing dead bodies in hopes of thawing them back to life.
Koreans can now have their body frozen and stored in cryostats in Moscow for 43 million won ($40,000). Han will speed up consultations, which will mostly take place in the upscale Cheongdam-dong area in southern Seoul, although his consulting firm, which runs as a coding education center during the day, is located in Incheon, west of Seoul.
|At the end of the placement of the cryopatient, flowers from relatives are laid. (Source: KrioRus)|
After signing legal contracts, individuals nearing death move to Moscow. Once pronounced legally dead, KrioRus officials will begin the cryopreserving process that involves vitrification – a process where all body fluids are replaced with a chemical called cryoprotectants, which very slowly turns living tissue into a solid without actually freezing them.
The process prevents cell damage while temperatures fall to -196 degrees Celsius, successfully stopping biological time. The body is then cooled with nitrogen gas. KrioRus claims it has cryopreserved 56 people and 22 pets. Six to eight frozen bodies are grouped and stored in cryostats, suspended so that their heads are closer to the floor, Han said.
Ironically, no cryonics company has yet achieved what it markets itself to be. The “freezing process” is sound but the “unfreezing” method is not. Research in the field has been going on - scientists across the globe are locked in a race to figure out exactly how to unfreeze human cells without damaging them.
Professor Kim C-Yoon from Konkuk University Medical Center - the only Korean to be part of Sergio Canavero’s full body transplant team - is the chief technology officer for KrioRus in the country.
Driven by a belief in scientific progress, and a willingness to cross what some consider un-crossable lines, Kim acts as one of the few stem cell researchers in the country who continually pushes the boundaries of ethics, in a country that has mostly shunned stem cell research following the Hwang Woo-suk scandal.
When Han approached Kim to be a part of the team, Kim recounted that he was skeptical at first. But Kim signed on because he saw U.S. scientists pushing forward important research that signaled the possibility of “thawing” technology becoming a reality.
Kim was referring to the study published in the Science Translational Journal, which demonstrated a nano warming technique that rapidly and uniformly rewarmed cryopreserved fibroblasts, porcine, arteries, and porcine heart tissues, leaving all mostly undamaged.
“The United States is leading in technological development, which aims to develop organ transplants. I’m trying to follow as fast as I can,” Kim said. He will work with KrioRus to advance cryonics research, keeping tabs on developments made in organ transplant technology.
A distant hope
Until researchers find a breakthrough, however, cryonics remains a distant hope.
The idea of cryonics first sprung up in the U.S. when Michigan College Professor Robert Ettinger published “The Prospect of Immortality,” which argued people frozen at precisely the moment of death can be brought back to life. It gained momentum through the transhumanism movement that seeks to use scientific progress to overcome human limitations, mainly physical ones. Transhumanism, in essence, seeks immortality – a concept as old as human history, according to U.S. bioethics expert Darryl Macer.
“People have searched immortality and long life for millennia, so despite its apparent futility, it is an ambition that is not unique to this generation,” said Professor Macer, a bioethics expert and president of the American University of Sovereign Nations. “Although I would not recommend it to anyone, it is consistent with a common hope of humanity. If the frozen bodies are treated with dignity and respect, it is within the scope of what can be ethical.”
Cryonics has posed an ethical problem, though. Reports found bodies at the Cryonics Society of California, one of the biggest cryonics facilities in the 1990s, rotting and decomposing in capsules when it ran out of funds. The world’s largest cryonics company, Alcor, dealt with several ethical claims: scientists were alleged to have cryopreserved people with the ambiguous consent and family members have been reported to have stolen back frozen bodies.
Unlike Alcor, KrioRus has kept a relatively clean slate. It has largely flown under the radar of regulatory authorities by establishing itself as a scientific organization, thereby evading the constraints of the legal and medical sector. The company also does not guarantee a human revival.
Lawyer Oh Myung-keun, who smoothed out the legal transactions between KrioRus and Human High Tech since last year, advised Han to act strictly as a middleman, providing only consultative services and linking the patient with the Moscow base before death.
“Business-wise, we can’t approach it. Public opinion. Ethics. Social significance. There’s just no discussion yet. There are too many legal risks,” Oh said. “We used to believe that freezing people would occur in some far, abstract future. But now it’s happening. And it’s hard to deal with in the current legal system. It’s a complex problem that deals with humans and with life.”
Too many legal risks
Questions of what will happen to one’s possessions when in storage, and of what is a person to do if they are ever revived makes cryonics a vortex of legal problems. Do they get the possessions they had before dying, back? What happens to their finances or their job, Oh asked. Human High Tech’s defensive legal strategy, too, seemed to indicate that cryonics is not legally possible, but signaled the potential for profit.
|Han Hyeong-tae (left), CEO of Human High Tech, and Oh Myung-keun, a lawyer at Oh & Son Law Firm, talk about how they brought KrioRus services to Korea, in Jongro, downtown Seoul.|
Inquiries in Korea about the services have already trickled in, with six people expressing interest, Han said. Most of them were mentally ill, or at the very least, deeply unhappy with their lives. “We didn’t market KrioRus yet, but people have contacted us after seeing news online,” Han said. “Most of them were in their 20s and 30s. They are physically fine, but they said they experience hardships in life. Some disclosed that they had mental disorders.”
The CEO, now in his 30s, dismissed five but left one person up for consideration: a young woman in her 20s studying in the U.S, who suddenly experienced menopause, then paralysis in the arms and legs, and finally a diagnosis with a fatal degenerative genetic disease. She told Han that the disease was progressing and wanted to freeze her body to wake up when a cure exists.
And almost as surprising were the inquiries from Korean stem cell companies, Han noted. “Two Korean stem cell companies, which I cannot name, asked KrioRus for advice on cell thawing, saying they reached around a 50 percent success level, but wanted help from KrioRus, which they believed could reach an 80 percent success level,” he said.
Many domestic stem cell companies have seen the rise of their stock prices in tandem with the hope of investors. Most small to medium size Korean stem cell companies continually deliver news that publicizes stem cell patents obtained, the start of research for a new drug, and even clinical trials, but almost none have been able to deliver actual products.
And on this axis of scientific research and ethically questionable businesses, Han views cryonics as a possible new burial standard, seeing parallels between cryonics and cremation. While cautiously evading the question of whether he belonged to the transhumanist movement, Han reaffirmed his belief in scientific progress to change how people live.
With its ambitious expansion into Asia, KrioRus continues its efforts to break the most fundamental human limitation: death. Cryonics is attracting people from all walks of life, bound together by a common desire to avoid what is, and hope for a future of what could be. At the heart and core of cryonics lies the question of whether it will come to pass.
“We do not know if it works, and will work. This is the most important consideration. It is experimental,” Processor Macer said. “And even if we could - in the future - revive a pet or person from cryonic storage, what would they be like?”