Australian scientists have made an exciting cryopreservation discovery that could improve organ storage. 

The discovery of new cryoprotective agents opens the door to developments that could one day help to eliminate the need for organ transplant waiting lists. 

Cryopreservation is a process of cooling biological specimens down to very low temperatures so they can be stored for a long time. 

Storing cells through cryopreservation has had big benefits for the world – including boosting supplies at blood banks and assisting reproduction – but it is currently impossible to store organs and simple tissues.  

In the United States, around 60 per cent of all donated hearts and lungs are discarded. 

About 1,850 people are on the waiting list for an organ transplant in Australia, while the number is over 100,000 in the US. 

But an RMIT team’s discovery of new cryoprotective agents could lead to the development of potentially thousands more that could help keep donated organs viable for years, rather than hours. 

Cryoprotective agents are like the antifreeze agents used in cars to stop the engine freezing, allowing the storage of cells at very low temperatures. 

“These agents help to protect against damage during cryopreservation, primarily from dehydration and freezing by preventing the formation of ice crystals that can damage cells,” says lead researcher, Dr Saffron Bryant.

“Ice crystals cause damage inside cells. Cryoprotectants stop ice forming, leading to a glassy structure instead that can solidify but doesn't cause the same sort of damage as ice crystals.” 

The research team discovered a cryoprotectant with two agents, proline and glycerol, was effective for all four cell types tested, including skin and brain cells, which were incubated with the cryoprotectant at 37℃ before being frozen.  

“This cryoprotectant was more effective and less toxic than its individual components,” Dr Bryant says. 

“This is one of the first times that this class of solvents has been systematically tested for cryopreservation of mammalian cells. 

“This study could lead to the development of potentially thousands of new cryoprotective agents that may be tailored to specific cell types.” 

Dr Bryant says incubating these cells with the cryoprotectant at 37℃ for several hours prior to freezing and keeping them viable is a crucial step towards the storage of organs and tissues.  

“It means we could expose organs to the cryoprotectants for long enough for them to penetrate into the deepest layers of the organ without causing damage,” she said. 

“We have a long way to go with our research, as we've only looked at single cells and it's a much more complicated process for organs. 

“But if we can develop this approach to store organs, we could eliminate organ shortages – there would be no waiting lists at all.” 

As a next step, the RMIT team will investigate ways to cryopreserve new cell types, including some that cannot be frozen and kept viable using current methods.  

More details are accessible here.