X-Message-Number: 7625
Date: Mon, 3 Feb 1997 02:56:23 -0500 (EST)
From: Charles Platt <>
Subject: Report from the Alcor Technology Festival

Report from the Alcor Technology Festival

by Charles Platt

This report is being typed late on Sunday, February 2. I will 
not have time to do an immaculate job, here, but want to 
circulate the news as fully and promptly as possible.

The report is in four parts: 

     1. The Rat Heart Demo 
     2. Conclusions
     3. Other News About Olga Visser
     4. The Mystery Ingredient--Revealed 

1. The Rat Heart Demo 

Even the most antagonistic observer had to feel some sympathy 
for Olga Visser when she failed for the fourth time to 
resuscitate a frozen rat heart on Sunday, February 2nd, at 
the Alcor Cryonics Technology Festival. 

Ms. Visser, who has more stamina and determination than her 
lean, petite physique suggests, started her first experiment 
around 9:30 AM at the Alcor facility in Scottsdale, Arizona. 
By 11 AM an audience of 30 visitors had gathered in the 
adjacent room, where a large TV showed generally excellent 
close-up pictures from Fred Chamberlain's camcorder, which he 
had mounted on a small tripod about 18 inches away from 
procedures on the lab bench. Attendees were allowed to make 
brief personal visits to the lab area, and photographs were 
permitted without any restrictions. I took many pictures, 
some of which will appear in the next CryoCare Report. 

Ms. Visser worked with intent, bird like motions, sometimes 
standing, sometimes sitting in front of a metal rack 
supporting several vertical tubes drip-fed by small bottles 
of colorless fluid. Hugh Hixon sat beside her, watching 
temperature graphs on a computer screen, while Fred 
Chamberlain, in a jacket and tie, sat at an adjacent desk 
monitoring his camcorder. 

During a brief appearance before an audience the previous 
day, Ms. Visser was asked why she often immersed rat hearts 
in liquid nitrogen for only 60 to 90 seconds. Some conference 
attendees speculated openly that by using cotton balls to 
wrap the hearts, she was protecting them from being cooled 
fully to -196 Celsius. This suspicion intensified when we 
learned that a temperature probe is not inserted in the heart 
itself, or attached to its exterior. Also, since the cotton 
wrapping the heart is wet, the water will liberate heat 
during its change of state to ice, providing additional 

Ms. Visser's response to these criticisms was immediate and 
unflinching. She had no doubt, she said, that the hearts were 
being frozen to -196. Therefore, it would make no difference 
if they were maintained for 60 seconds or 60 days; and she 
vowed to freeze her hearts today for a full 20 minutes. 

Initially she perfused a heart for about half an hour with 
her secret cryoprotectant, at a temperature between 1 and 2 
degrees Celsius. Perfusion is a three-stage process, which I 
believe ramps up from weak concentrations to a final value of 
20 percent. A gas mixture of 95 percent oxygen, 5 percent 
carbon dioxide is bubbled into her cryoprotectant. She uses a 
simple gravity-drip-feed connected to a cannula that is 
placed in the aorta of the heart. 

As I understand it, she perfuses a fixed volume of 
cryoprotectant, for whatever length of time it takes. In her 
demonstration today she then disconnected the heart from the 
cannula, wrapped it in cotton balls, and placed this mass in 
a thin-walled plastic cup (very similar to the little cups 
that dairy creamer is served in, in fast-food restaurants). A 
rubber band was stretched around the mouth of the cup, and 
the cup was then placed in some Dacron wool inside a Coke can 
from which the top had been removed. This, according to Ms. 
Visser, was her way of simulating a cryonics patient being 
placed in a dewar. 

The Coke can was then dunked in a real (small) dewar of 
liquid nitrogen. Observers verified that the can was fully 
immersed beneath the surface. Twenty minutes later, it was 
removed. The cotton mass--now frozen--was dunked in a 
concentrated solution of the Visser cryoprotectant, and was 
allowed to soak for about ten minutes before she started 
prying the cotton away with tweezers. About another ten 
minutes later the heart was revealed, and was a healthy red-
brown color. She reattached it to the cannula and recommenced 
flowing cryoprotectant solution through it, gradually warming 
it to room temperature. 

This, of course, was the moment everyone had been waiting 
for. While conference attendees watched impatiently, Ms. 
Visser tapped the heart, shook it, prodded it, massaged it, 
and forced additional fluid through it under high pressure 
from a large syringe. Finally she pierced it with three EEG 
probes whose signals were displayed on a CRT screen in a unit 
that also emitted audible beeps. 

The beeps, however, were erratic and seemed to be generated 
each time the assembly was moved or shaken. When Ms. Visser 
allowed the heart to dangle undisturbed from its cannula, the 
beeps settled into a steady rhythm--which coincided precisely 
with drips of cryoprotectant falling from the bottom of the 
heart, and seemed to be caused entirely by the associated 
fluctuation in conductivity. Ms. Visser suggested that the 
heart was in fact pumping the cryoprotectant through it, but 
no contractions were visible. 

Undaunted, Ms. Visser walked into the other room and told the 
audience that the beeps indicated weak ventricular 
contractions. This was politely disputed by two attendees, 
one of them with formal training as an EEG technician. It was 
also noted that the heart had lost its healthy color and 
turned gray after being warmed to room temperature. The 
blanching indicated typical post-freezing injury, and the 
resistance to free flow of fluid through the heart suggested 
that the capillary bed had been damaged by freezing. This was 
confirmed a little later when the heart was disconnected from 
its cannula and cut open. 

Even Ms. Visser's supporters were forced to admit that this 
heart had not, in fact, resumed beating. Two of them claimed 
that they had witnessed a successful experiment on the 
previous Friday, when Ms. Visser had arrived to practice her 
techniques at the Alcor facility. On that occasion, according 
to two witnesses, a heart had pulsed visibly--but this was a 
heart that had been immersed in liquid nitrogen for only one 
minute. Moreover, even that trial had been preceded by 
unsuccessful attempts. 

Today (Sunday) Ms. Visser told us that she might not have 
time to try again with a second heart. She said that a 
mistake had been made; her flight back to South Africa was 
supposed to be on Monday, but when she looked at her ticket 
this morning she saw that it was valid for this afternoon. 
She also said that it was important to buy gifts for her 
children, and she planned to go shopping before heading out 
to the airport. 

This caused some consternation among Alcor personnel, who 
huddled briefly with Ms. Visser, called the airline, and 
arranged for her ticket to be changed so that she would 
return home tomorrow (Monday) as originally promised. 

Ms. Visser now had no reason to leave the lab, so she set to 
work on another rat. By this time the audience had thinned 
out considerably, and I believe some of the people left under 
the impression that the first trial had been a success. 
Clearly this was not the case, since the heart had showed 
such clear evidence of severe freezing damage, and no 
contractions had been visible. 

The full cycle of dissection/perfusion/immersion/reperfusion 
takes about two hours, and entails long periods during which 
there is no action at all. The Alcor facility turned into a 
low-key non-alcoholic cocktail party as people wandered from 
room to room, socializing on a cordial basis. There was no 
sign of any animosity, and indeed I believe everyone wanted 
the Visser experiment to be a success. Our future, as 
cryonicists, would obviously be enhanced by any breakthrough 
in cryoprotectants. 

Alas, Ms. Visser's second heart of the day was even less 
successful than the first. It failed almost completely to 
reperfuse, and one observer judged that it was grossly 

Ms. Visser is a determined woman, however, and promptly 
started work on her heart. At this point I left, because the 
first two experiments had been so unsuccessful, I found it 
hard to believe that the third would do any better. Also the 
event was beginning to remind me of experiments to detect 
psychic phenomena, which always seem to fail while skeptics 
are around. I was frankly embarrassed on behalf of Ms. 
Visser, who I think is a sincere woman who believes in her 

I returned to the lab around 5 PM and found it virtually 
empty. I was told that the third heart had been another 
failure, and everyone had gone out to dinner. This turned out 
to be a long break; Ms. Visser didn't show up till around 
7:30, holding a large sandwich. After eating it, she killed 
another rat and set to work on her fourth heart. 

By this time the audience had shrunk to only seven hard-core 
research enthusiasts: Mike Darwin, Sandra Russell, and Joan 
O'Farrell (all from BioPreservation/21st Century Medicine), 
myself, Erico Narita, and two others whose names I won't 
include because I don't know if they would wish to be 
mentioned. Hugh Hixon, Fred Chamberlain, Linda Chamberlain, 
and Steve Bridge were also present. 

The fourth heart was a problem even before it was frozen. For 
reasons that no one could understand it perfused extremely 
slowly, as if it contained some kind of interior obstruction. 
This time Ms. Visser wrapped it in a thicker layer of cotton 
(by my visual estimation) and immersed it in liquid nitrogen 
for only four-and-a-half minutes. To no avail: the heart 
showed significant cracks when it was removed from its 
coccoon, and was clearly damaged beyond repair. 

Ms. Visser shook hands all around, we thanked her for her 
efforts, and the visitors left the lab. 


Absence of evidence is not, as the saying goes, evidence of 
absence. The failure of the four trials that we witnessed 
does not prove that Ms. Visser's cryoprotectant is useless. 
There are still reports that on other occasions, she has been 
successful. Tanya Jones, Alcor's Director of Suspension 
Services for the past four or five years, told me that she 
saw clearly visible contractions of a heart that had been 
placed in liquid nitrogen for several minutes. 

Still, I have to say I was troubled by the obvious lack of 
experimental rigor. Ms. Visser changes her parameters and 
procedures in an impulsive style, like a chef deciding to add 
a little more salt or a little less sugar each time she cooks 
a particular dish. I was told that the final concentration of 
her solution was 25 percent during some previous trials; 
tonight, for reasons unspecified, it was 20 percent. The 
procedure for wrapping the heart seemed to vary from one time 
to the next, and the Coke can was pre-filled with liquid 
nitrogen during the second trial that I witnessed, while it 
was not pre-filled during the first trial (so far as I was 
able to see). 

I am also troubled by Ms. Visser's initial claim that the 
first heart in today's series was a success. She did not 
formally retract this claim, but ultimately did admit that 
her experiments today were a failure. Of course I realize 
that she was operating under considerable pressure, in front 
of an audience containing several critics, and she must have 
felt a great need to vindicate her procedure. This cannot 
excuse, however, a false claim; and a false claim was made. 

It remains unclear whether her procedure for wrapping rat 
hearts does in fact provide significant protection from 
liquid-nitrogen temperatures. When challenged on this subject 
today, she cut off a piece of rat liver, approximately the 
same size as a heart, wrapped it in cotton, dunked it for 90 
seconds, then removed it and applied a temperature probe that 
showed it was, in fact, below -190 Celsius. On the other 
hand, I noticed that in her fourth heart today she added 
considerably more protective cotton. I also noticed that 
Alcor personnel did not always check that her hearts were 
completely immersed in the dewar of liquid nitrogen. Even if 
they had been more rigorous, immersion is almost impossible 
to judge during a short period, because vapor in the dewar 
takes a couple of minutes to clear, and during that time 
there is no way to see the sample. 

I also note that observers typically become inattentive 
during a number of unsuccessful trials. I myself failed to 
notice, tonight, when Ms. Visser removed her fourth heart 
from perfusion and placed it in the dewar. I was tired and 
was momentarily distracted. I believe that Ms. Visser is 
sincere and honorable, but if she were tempted to cut any 
corners in her procedures, it would be relatively easy to do 
so after some unsuccessful attempts. Of course, a properly 
situated probe inside the heart, or attached to its outside, 
would allay these doubts; but I was told that no such probe 
has been used. 

Bearing all this in mind, and also bearing in mind the severe 
freezing damage that I witnessed, I have to conclude that I 
found absolutely no evidence in favor of Ms. Visser's 
cryoprotectant. It's still possible, of course, that we were 
just unlucky today, and valid results may have been obtained 

Other News About Olga Visser 

On Saturday (the first day of the Alcor conference) Ms. 
Visser stood before an audience of about 40 attendees and 
made a short speech urging cryonicists to cooperate and work 
together. She obviously realized that this plea for harmony 
contrasted oddly with her online persona. "A lot of people 
probably thought I'd ride in on a broom," she said. But she 
told us that she is a shy, decent, pleasant person. In fact, 
she claimed that her combative messages on the Net were not 
written by her at all. Her husband Zigi had typed some of 
them; others had been composed by an employee of the South 
African Government who has been assigned to protect Ms. 
Visser from her critics and keep her away from journalists at 
all times. Ms. Visser said that the only messages she wrote 
herself were the strictly factual ones describing 
experimental procedure. 

Well, I already noticed that the factual messages were 
formatted with a different line length from the ones that 
flamed her critics so savagely. On the other hand, as one 
cynic remarked, if Ms. Visser suffers from multiple 
personality disorder, we should expect her hostile 
personality to use different text formatting from her kinder, 
gentler personality. 

After her short self-introduction, Ms. Visser mentioned a few 
interesting details about her work. She said she had frozen a 
pig heart initially, but switched to rat hearts because they 
are cheaper and more plentiful. Funding is obviously a 
problem in South Africa, where the government gives highest 
priority to AIDS research. Ms. Visser said that she did not 
get her own laboratory until a month ago, and she had been 
constantly frustrated by the unwillingness of assistants to 
work long hours. She hopes ultimately to relocate in the 
United States, where people are more willing to work hard. 

She endorsed the concept of cryonics. "The hope of everyone 
is to be young forever," she said. Ideally, we should eat 
right, not smoke, and "live in the woods" (presumably, away 
from pollution). Still, she said, "since this is not 
possible, the second-best way is to be frozen and come back 
in perfect health at a time when all diseases can be cured."

I noted that Ms. Visser herself is a fairly heavy smoker. 

When she was asked why her research hasn't been repeated 
elsewhere, she responded that a group in Australia is working 
on livers using her proprietary cryoprotectant. "They brought 
a liver back that was stored for three days," she claimed. 
"And we have people working in London as well." She did not 
specify names of researchers, or affiliations. 

Her next step, she said, will be to cryopreserve a pig heart, 
keep it in liquid nitrogen for a few days, then rewarm it and 
transplant it back into a pig. Since she belongs to a 
thoracic surgery department, she is not allowed to work on 
any organ other than hearts. She does want to expand her 
techniques to other organs, though, and sees no reason why 
her cryoprotectant shouldn't scale up to preserve human 
brains. She also wants to establish a bank of frozen skin, 
because the European skin grafts that are imported to South 
Africa are unsuitable for Black Africans. 

When will we learn the composition of her cryoprotectant? 
"Very soon," she said. By this she seemed to mean that the 
news will be circulated when her paper on rat hearts is 
finally published. 

On this topic, the news is as follows. The rat-heart paper 
was the first paper she ever wrote. In her naivety, she 
failed to include some procedural details. Consequently, the 
paper was sent back for revisions, which have now been made. 
She claims that her coworkers want to submit the paper to 
Science magazine, but she feels that it would be "unfair" not 
to resubmit it to the cryobiology magazine where it was 
originally sent. She is hoping to do this "soon" and hopes 
for publication "before June." 

She finished up with a telling self-description. "If I want 
to do something," she said, "I do it. I go against most other 
people, I'll just go ahead and do it, in any country, and 
then I'll answer questions afterward." 

Unfortunately, she had been warned by her lawyers not to 
answer any questions about her AIDS research, so we learned 
nothing new on this topic. 

Mystery Ingredient--Revealed 

While Ms. Visser's agents were busily threatening to sue 
anyone and everyone who dared to state the composition of the 
VisserStuff online, I have to report that a fairly well known 
Alcor member inadvertantly confirmed to me that Ms. Visser's 
cryoprotectant is, in fact, exactly the stuff that many 
people have said it is. The Alcorian speculated that trace 
impurities may be the reason why Visser's stock of the 
chemical, which originates in South Africa, has worked on rat 
hearts while American attempts to duplicate her work have 
failed. In other words, the Alcorian did _not_ suggest that 
the U.S. researchers have been using the wrong chemical 
altogether; merely that their supply of it may be slightly 
polluted. Subsequently, a _second_ Alcorian said exactly the 
same thing. 

I believe this removes the last vestige of mystery from the 
mystery ingredient. We know what it is; now we just need some 
repeatable results. I understand that Alcor has been unable 
to obtain these results when Ms. Visser is not present. I 
hope someone, somewhere will be able to do so; otherwise, 
Olga Visser's claims will remain unverified. 

PS. In her rat-heart experiments today (Sunday) Ms. Visser 
used a supply of cryoprotectant that she brought with her 
from South Africa. 

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