“Breaking the ice” on organ banking

Hebrew University researchers develop a solution for long-term preservation of cells and organs for transplant, as part of a global alliance to bank organs

After decades of studies, scientists now believe that a breakthrough in preserving body organs for the purpose of saving lives is close at hand.

A heart or lung is kept viable for transplantation for only six hours before deterioration begins. Pancreas or liver would go to waste after 12 hours in storage, and a kidney could be kept outside the body for less than 30 hours. These time constraints pose a tremendous logistical challenge for the procedure of transplanting donated organs. Transplantation stands the best chance to succeed when performed as quickly as possible after the donor surgery, and given these time frames, many organs end up going to waste.

One of the main problems standing in the way of storing organs for more than a few hours is ice growth. When organs are frozen, expanding ice crystals damage the cells in a way that they cannot be revived.

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That is why an organ such as heart, kidney, liver, lung and intestine, that is removed from a donor is kept cooled but not frozen, and its life-span is not longer than several hours.

“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,” says Prof. Ido Braslavsky from the Institute of Biochemistry, Food Science and Nutrition at the Robert H. Smith Faculty of Agriculture, Food and Environment in The Hebrew University of Jerusalem.

Perfecting cryopreservation – the process of preserving cells, tissues and organs in sub-zero temperatures – would enable long-term banking of tissues and organs and efficient matching between donor and patient, eventually saving lives of millions of people around the world.

Prof. Braslavsky is one of the top researches contributing significantly to this field of research. His work was recently featured in an article in The Economist. Together with his Hebrew University team, including Dr. Maya Bar Dolev, Dr. Liat Bahari, Dr. Amir Bein, Dr. Ran Drori, Dr. Victor Yeshunsky and others, and in collaboration with Prof. Peter Davies from Queens University in Canada, he studies Antifreeze proteins – a type of ice-binding proteins that help organisms to resist or to withstand freezing both in sea and on land.

Ice-binding proteins were discovered some 50 years ago in Antarctic fish and are now known to exist in cold-resistant fish, plants, insects and microorganisms. They actively inhibit the formation and growth of crystalline ice, and their superiority over other antifreeze substances is that they are needed in very low amounts to do it effectively.

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