A new technique for freezing organs for later transplant could lead to the world's first organ bank. A new technique for freezing organs for later transplant could lead to the world's first organ bank. A new technique for freezing organs for later transplant could lead to the world's first organ bank. (Photo: Africa Studio /Shutterstock)

Doctors may have just invented a way to freeze organs

Lessons learned from Antarctic fish could shift cryopreservation from fantasy to future.

Freezing people has long been a popular theme in science fiction flicks from classics like "2001: A Space Odyssey" to comedies like "Encino Man" where a caveman (played by Brendan Fraser) is accidentally thawed out in a Southern California backyard. Now, after decades of research, scientists believe they have made a breakthrough to freeze organs (not whole people, yet) for transplant at a later date.

“The ability to freeze organs and to then thaw them without causing damage to the organ itself would be revolutionary in terms of our chances to save lives,” said Prof. Ido Braslavsky of The Hebrew University of Jerusalem.

According to the World Hearth Organization, more than 90% of transplant candidates are unable to find a viable organ. Organs have an extremely short lifespan outside of a living body. A cooled but not frozen kidney could be kept outside of the body for up to 30 hours, while a pancreas or liver will last no more than 12 hours. A heart is viable for no more than half that. Time constraints like that present an incredible logistical challenge for transplant teams, and many organs end up going to waste.

Prof. Ido Braslavsky in his lab at Hebrew University where his is investigating ice-binding proteins and new methods in cryopreservation of cells and tissues.Prof. Ido Braslavsky in his lab at Hebrew University in Israel where his is investigating ice-binding proteins and new methods in cryopreservation. (Photo: Dr. Amir Bein)

Until now, freezing was impossible because of ice growth; expanding ice crystals damage tissue cells in a way that cannot be reversed. Braslavsky, along with a team of fellow researchers in Israel as well as at Queens University in Canada, are working to perfect the use of antifreeze proteins to preserve organs for a longer period of time.

The idea comes from Antarctic fish, which have ice-binding proteins that act as an antifreeze substance to inhibit the growth of crystalline ice.

Using a specially designed cooler, Braslavsky and his team were able to illuminate the proteins with fluorescent dyes to follow ice crystals as they grow and melt during the freezing process. They discovered that ice binding proteins absorb to ice via irreversible binding, effectively stopping ice growth.

“We found that proteins in insects are much more efficient in inhibiting ice growth than proteins in fish, but fish proteins bind faster to ice,” he said.

Dr. Braslavsky’s pioneering work is helping to develop techniques to freeze organs – the official term is cryopreservation – in such a way that when thawed, their form and function is restored to that of a normal, viable tissue. Perfecting cryopreservation would enable long-term banking of organs and tissue. Imagine needing a lung transplant, and instead of being put on a years-long waitlist, you can order one from the organ bank, much like you order a book from Amazon.

The frozen food industry already uses ice binding proteins in some of their products to protect ice cream from losing its texture, or meat from taking on a withered look when thawed.

The cryopreservation race is now on. Last year the U.S. announced the first-ever government grants for organ banking, and shortly thereafter the first global Organ Banking Summit was held in California. With all this excitement building, Braslavsky's frozen organs may soon become a reality.

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