Freezing time for organ transplantation
What if it were possible to stop time, biologically speaking, to keep living donor organs undamaged for longer?
Every day in the United States, fewer than 100 people receive organ transplants while more than 100,000 others continue to wait for the donor organs that could save their lives.
The discrepancy between organ need and availability stems from a simple yet formidable foe: time.
But what if it were possible to stop time, biologically speaking? Scientists at the University of Minnesota think it’s feasible through cryopreservation, a type of super-cold storage that keeps living organs undamaged longer.
Today when a donor organ becomes available, doctors preserve it in an ice-filled cooler at 39° F and quickly work to deliver it to a patient in need. They have only a matter of hours to find a matching recipient, transport the organ, and perform transplant surgery before the organ becomes unusable. Inevitably, many healthy organs are lost in this race against the clock.
Now the U’s John Bischof, Ph.D., holder of the Medtronic-Bakken Endowed Chair for Engineering in Medicine and Carl and Janet Kuhrmeyer Chair in Mechanical Engineering, and M Health Fairview transplant surgeon Erik Finger, M.D., Ph.D., lead a team that has successfully cryopreserved small animal tissues.
Bischof says the technique was invented to be scalable and could be used to store human hearts, kidneys, lungs, and other organs in the future—thereby exponentially extending the amount of time donor organs are viable.
“Ultimately, thousands—even millions—of lives could be saved or improved,” he says.
Here’s how the process could work:
ILLUSTRATION BY TIM BRADFORD