Partners HealthCare is committed to supporting bold research endeavors that aim to improve patient care and quality of life. For the 120,000 patients on transplant wait lists for new hearts, lungs, and kidneys, every donated organ represents hope. Yet three out of four of these precious organs succumb to the laws of nature—where cell death rapidly diminishes their viability—ending up in biohazard bags rather than in patients who need them.
Researchers are hard at work to outsmart nature. One pathway involves the use of advanced printing technology at Brigham and Women's Hospital to artificially create tissues and organs from scratch. A second pathway is aimed at keeping natural organs fresher, longer, by enhancing current preservation techniques.
The most promising advances within this second pathway fit into two big categories, explains Mehmet Toner, PhD, Director of the Bio MicroElectroMechanical Systems Center at Massachusetts General Hospital. The first is perfusion—the pumping of nutrients into organs to extend their viability. The second, vitrification, involves freezing organs to cryogenic temperatures around -320°F, which could potentially allow for extended freezing.
“We know, from the successful freezing of eggs and embryos, that it works in principle,” says Dr. Toner. “We just need to solve some problems of handling larger organs.”
These problems include ice crystals, which compromise cells during cooling and thawing. Researchers are working to overcome them, by finding new chemical and nanotechnology agents that fend off ice crystals and improve thawing techniques. These and other advances could not only lengthen the window of time to transplant, but also expand the pool of viable organs by boosting the viability of organs considered “marginal” for transplant.
Read more about Dr. Toner’s research in proto.