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Better ‘Biobanking’ Could Pay Off for Organ Recipients

New Ways of Preserving Organs and Tissues Needed to Improve Transplants, Make Health Care More Equitable, Researchers Say

By Alyssa Tomlinson

Illustration of human body broken into puzzle pieces

Current methods used to preserve organs and tissues for transplants and research can damage these precious resources, and don't keep them viable for long. A new review by a UMD researcher points out avenues to improve "biobanking," making crucial health care more affordable worldwide.

Illustration by iStock

The cells, tissues and organs critical to modern medicine and scientific research alike are in short supply, and the processes used to bank or preserve them are both tricky and expensive. Meanwhile, the need is growing: According to the U.S. Health Resources and Services Administration, more than 106,000 men, women and children are on the U.S. national transplant waiting list.

In a recent review article in Nature Biomedical Engineering, a University of Maryland bioengineering researcher and colleagues lay out how advances in microfabrication, nanofabrication, materials science and thermal-fluid engineering can improve how cells, tissues and organs are banked or even created.

“Despite many years of research, the field lacks a comprehensive review of its status quo in terms of both sufficient breadth and depth to elucidate its future directions,” said Professor Xioaming (Shawn) He of the Fischell Department of Bioengineering, who published the article with co-authors Haishui Huang and Martin L. Yarmush of the Center for Engineering in Medicine at Massachusetts General Hospital.

The standard preservation process for live cells, tissues and organs—known as biopreservation—calls for keeping biospecimens at low temperatures. Preservations of more than a week are stored below minus 60 degrees Celsius, while short-term preservations are typically stored around 0-4 degrees Celsius.

But the cold temperatures can also have adverse effects, including ice formation and the consumption of oxygen and nutrients, which deplete energy stores or produce noxious metabolites, causing harm to the cells. The result: Biospecimens stored in this way often last only for short periods of a few hours to a few days.

“Today’s biopreservation techniques require toxic chemicals … often in high doses,” He explained. “They also need expensive controlled freezing instruments and often work only for small sample volumes. It is difficult to apply such techniques to bank large-volume samples like tissues and organs, or allow for a short-term banking.”

Improving on current techniques—for example, to preserve donors’ cells that could be used to fight diseases like myocardial infarction and diabetes or wage a battle against cancers like leukemia—could make all the difference, such as decreasing the risk that a recipient’s body will reject a transplanted organ.

Advances in biopreservation techniques are also critically needed to empower low- and-middle-income countries to perform organ transplants. Approximately one-quarter of the world’s organ transplants are carried out in the United States, which has only 4% of the world’s population. In contrast, only 0.5% of the world’s transplants are carried out in Africa, home to 16% of the world’s total population.

“Contemporary biopreservation methods for clinical applications are not only expensive, but they also depend on access to equipment and clinicians, as well as reliable access to liquid nitrogen and/or electricity,” He said.

Technology development should aim to make biospecimen preservation less expensive and more accessible to all, He said.

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