Fall 2021

Frozen in time

A new center at the U is harnessing the power of cryopreservation to help solve the organ shortage


If you could have any superpower, which would you choose?

John Bischof, Ph.D., director of the University of Minnesota Institute for Engineering in Medicine, and Erik Finger, M.D., Ph.D., an associate professor in the Medical School’s Department of Surgery, know their answer: freezing time.

With any luck, their superpower aspirations will become a reality—biologically speaking—at the University of Minnesota’s new Organ and Tissue Preservation Center, which the duo co-leads.

Fueled by philanthropy and support from the Biostasis Research Institute, the center at the U aims to harness the power of cryopreservation, a type of super-cold storage that can keep living materials—including human organs—undamaged for long periods of time.

Cryopreservation essentially stops an organ’s biological clock, giving researchers and transplant physicians a desperately needed upper hand in their fight against time.

Right now, many viable organs can’t be preserved long enough to be transplanted. In fact, fewer than 100 people receive organ transplants each day in the United States, while more than 100,000 others continue to wait. Cryopreservation could solve the organ shortage crisis by enabling the creation of storage banks that contain “off-the-shelf” organs—available whenever they are needed.

“This has the potential to impact millions of patients across the globe,” says Bischof, who holds the Medtronic-Bakken Endowed Chair for Engineering in Medicine and the Carl and Janet Kuhrmeyer Chair in Mechanical Engineering.

Bischof and Finger, who is also an M Health Fairview transplant surgeon, along with their colleagues, will work to overcome the remaining challenges of cryopreservation.

Chief among them: figuring out how to delicately control the rate of cooling and rewarming to protect cells from being damaged. Today they’re pioneering strategies that use nanoparticles to quickly and evenly rewarm tissues and organs (see how it works) to ensure their viability after being frozen.