The cryonics industry offers low-temperature preservation of the body and brain on death, and this is presently the only alternative to the grave and oblivion for those who will age to death prior to the advent of rejuvenation therapies. Preservation of the structures holding the data of the mind provides a chance at life again in a future in which technology has advanced to the point at which restoration of a preserved individual becomes practical. The media these days treats cryonics with a lot more respect than used to be the case, though they still tend to dumb things down by talking about freezing rather than vitrification with cryoprotectants - a very important distinction when talking about tissue preservation. I think that this change in attitudes is in part because the development of vitrification techniques for use in the organ preservation and transplant industry is much more evidently making progress and gathering support in the research community. Since that is an accepted field of research, and meanwhile researchers are demonstrating preservation of fine structure in vitrified brain tissue, it becomes hard for journalists to dismiss cryonics out of hand.
In a nondescript industrial office park in San Leandro, a little city on the outskirts of Oakland, sits the headquarters of a business named Trans Time. The walls in the foyer of the building are filled with posters about anti-aging research. There's a lab with microscopes and beakers that look like they've been around since Trans Time opened in 1974, and a white room with an operating table. In the very back of the office, you'll find a large canister of liquid nitrogen, and a handful of 10-foot-tall metal vats that look like huge coffee Thermoses. Visitors aren't allowed to look inside these vats, but if you could, you'd see that one of them contains three human corpses - or, as the facility refers to them, "patients."
With just three patients frozen in its tanks, Trans Time is a scrappy little cryonics competitor. (The last person to enter one of Trans Time's vats was the company's founder, Paul Segall, a Berkeley Ph.D who co-founded the publicly-traded medical company BioTime. He died of a brain aneurism in 2003.) The two largest cryonics facilities are Alcor, in Arizona, and the Cryonics Institute, in Michigan; that's where you'll find most of the 300 or so people who are currently frozen. There's also KrioRus in Russia, which has 45 people on ice. And there are over 2,000 people worldwide who have signed up to be frozen, but haven't died yet.
Greg Fahy is a cryobiologist at 21st Century Medicine, a scientific institution based in southern California that has received funding from the National Institutes of Health to work on cryonically preserving organs. And he thinks the sci-fi fantasy of bringing frozen bodies back to life may not be as far-fetched as we think. "We're getting pretty good at this. We can load a kidney up with cryoprotectant and save it. We now know we can remove a piece of the brain and preserve it with perfection, and then put it back and it will still operate." Fahy, who has experimented successfully with cryonic preservation in rabbits and rats, thinks it may one day work in humans, too. "There's nothing about brain tissue that prevents it from being cryonically preserved."
In fact, Fahy said, the biggest obstacle to successful cryonic reanimation might be the law, not science. Most cryonics experts agree that cryonic preservation would work best on bodies that aren't yet dead, and haven't begun to decompose. But under current law, cryonics facilities are prohibited from freezing their patients while they're alive. (Doing so would be considered assisted suicide, or possibly murder.) "There may need to be legal changes that need to be made to allow cryonic preservation before deterioration begins."
Cryonics, itself, represents a kind of faith - a faith that scientific progress will continue unabated, and will eventually be able to solve even death itself. Cryonicists believe so strongly in our scientific future that many think that people who bury, cremate or compost their bodies instead of freezing them are, essentially, committing suicide.