Cryopreservation or the freezing of cells or an entire body might sound like something from a sci-fi movie, but the practice is slowly picking up pace in the real world. Scientists and doctors have made a huge leap in cryonics – the effort to save lives through sub-zero temperatures – by freezing the body of a two-year-old Thai girl. Matheryn Naovaratpong is now the youngest person in the world to be cryogenically preserved.
Fondly known to her family as “Einz”, the toddler was diagnosed with a rare form of brain cancer shortly before her third birthday. She died on 8 January 2015, just before she turned three. But her parents – both medical engineers – have decided to give her another chance at life using cryonics.
Through cryonics, it is possible to preserve the bodies of humans and animals who cannot be cured through contemporary medicine, with the hope that they may be healed and resuscitated if extraordinary medical advances take place in the future. “As scientists, we are 100% confident this will happen one day – we just don’t know when,” Einz’s father Sahatorn said.
“In the past, we might have thought it would take 400 to 500 years, but right now we can imagine that it might be possible in just 30 years. This will happen one day,” he added confidently.
"The first day Einz was sick, this idea came to my mind right away that we should do something scientifically for her, as much as is humanly possible at present," Sahatorn said. "I felt a real conflict in my heart about this idea, but I also needed to hold onto it. So I explained my idea to my family."
The rest of the family found it difficult to accept the idea initially, but as Einz's health deteriorated, they eventually came round and gave their consent. Sahatorn and his wife Nareerat have always been strong believers in medical technology. They have three other children, out of which only one had a natural birth. Nareerat had to have her uterus removed after the first birth, so Einz and her younger brother and sister were conceived through IVF. Technology, they said, played a central role at the very start of her life, and could well help restore it.
That idea was to preserve Einz through technology known as cryonics. The body, or in Einz's case just her brain, is put into a deeply frozen state at the point of death, and kept that way until, at some point in the future, extraordinary advances in medical technology allow her to be revived, and for a new body to be created for her.
Einz's family chose Alcor, an Arizona-based non-profit organization that is the leading provider of what it calls "life extension" services, to carry out the preservation of Einz's brain. A team from Alcor was flown over to Thailand to be on standby while Einz grew weaker by each day, she was eventually moved from the hospital to her own room where she would spend the last of her remaining days. The moment she was pronounced dead, the Alcor team began what is known as "cryoprotection"; removing bodily fluids and replacing them with forms of anti-freeze that allows the body to be deeply frozen without suffering large-scale tissue damage.
Einz was then transported to the United States in a specially designed coffin that her family had prepared for her. After arriving in Arizona her brain was extracted, and is preserved at a temperature of -196°C. She is Alcor's 134th patient, and by far its youngest.
"Matheryn had something special about her from the day she was born," he says. "She communicated with her love more than the other children, always wanting to be part of our activities," Einz's father said. "I tell you we still feel our love for her. Although we fought to be strong, when she had passed away, we were no different from other families; we cried every day. We still need time to heal."
In his mind, Einz's thoughts and personality are preserved with her brain at Alcor, and may at some stage be enough for her life to be reconstructed. He and his wife also plan to have their own bodies preserved cryogenically, although he acknowledges there is little chance they will be able to meet Einz again in their new lives.
They also plan to visit the Alcor facility, to see the steel container in which Einz's brain is being kept in what the company calls "biostasis". The Naovaratpongs say they have donated similar sums of money to what they have spent on Einz's cryopreservation to cancer research in Thailand.
The entire idea of it all sounds quite disturbing, almost bordering on psychotic, but you have to remember that this is a family in deep grief over a beloved toddler whose life was so tragically cut short. They probably felt helpless and were rendered useless as they watched the light slowly fading out in Einz's eyes every day, so they did what they best thought they possibly could. But the question is; if Einz could really be brought back from the dead with medical advancements in the future and have her brain implanted into someone else's body or some kind of machine, what kind of quality of life would she be leading? Since her brain was crogenically frozen at the age of two, she would "wake up" as a two year old, knowing practically next to nothing, and her parents might not even be around anymore to see to it that she is taken care of. There is also no knowing of whether the cryogenic process would have any side effects on her brain development, society might label her as a freak and she might just live out the rest of her life as an invalid. Is this really the best for Einz?