Science fiction has long been enthralled with the concept of cryogenic freezing.
The genre has used it to facilitate space exploration, dystopian futures, and the machinations of criminal masterminds. Unfortunately, the reality has been somewhat underwhelming due to the limitations of the technology.
With that said, 2017 promises to be an exciting time for science and technology that will blur the lines between science fiction and reality.
Cryopreservation is the technique of cryogenic freezing tissue and organs at low temperatures to preserve them. While this sounds simplistic in theory, the process becomes infinitely more complicated when it is time for the specimens to be thawed. The freezing process has been refined to the point that it is possible to prevent the formation of ice crystals. However, they frequently form during the thawing process and render the samples unusable.
The cryogenic freezing technique is most readily applied to very small specimens such as embryos, eggs, and sperm. It has thus far been impossible to produce reliably viable specimens that are larger such as organs needed for transplants. This is unfortunate as many of the organs donated for transplants are unable to be used and are ultimately disposed of.
Currently, the only option for organ transplant recipients is to have a donated organ brought to them by a lab relocation service. This must be done as quickly as possible due to the rapid deterioration of the organs. Viability times for organs vary but on average kidneys must be transplanted within 30 hours, the liver or pancreas within about 12 hours, and the lungs or heart within about 6 hours.
The Future of Transplants
The University of Minnesota recently revealed the remarkable findings of their research team which uncovered a method to rewarm heart valves without damage. This has the potential to revolutionize transplant methodology and cryogenic freezing.
It may eventually lead to millions of lives being saved through an increased repository of organs that can be transplanted on demand. While it is now necessary to find an exact match for a patient from a recently deceased or living donor, in the future it may be possible for organ donations to be stored in a bank akin to the blood bank method currently in place for transfusions. This represents a massive advantage in an industry that has about a 60 percent rate of wasted donations due to the time constraints of harvesting and transplanting donated tissue.
The new study created a new warming method utilizing nanoparticles made of silica-coated iron oxide that were dispersed throughout a solution of cryoprotectant holding the tissue. The nanoparticles functioned as heaters when activated with electromagnetic waves. This noninvasive procedure allowed the tissue to quickly and uniformly be warmed at rates of up to 100 times faster than previously possible.
Once the tissue was rewarmed it was tested for viability. The results indicated that none of the specimens were harmed. In contrast, the control specimens which were warmed using more traditional methods were harmed. Further, the research team was able to remove the nanoparticles from the specimen after it reached the desired temperature.
The procedure still needs to be scaled up to accommodate organs, but the researchers are optimistic. They currently plan to begin with the organs of rodents and then advance to the organs of pigs before attempting the procedure with human organs.
The technology has additional medical implications and may eventually be utilized to deliver lethal doses of heat directly into cancer cells without harming the surrounding cells or tissues.
Fortunately for science fiction writers, the medical world still has a long way to go before it is possible to do many of the fantastic things they have imagined. There is plenty of room to stretch the imagination and explore the limits of our reality. The reality this new research brings closer is far more exciting for its potential to revolutionize surgical procedures and cryogenic freezing technology to save lives.