I recently heard a podcast from CBC's Ideas and they were podcasting some of the highlights from the "Ideacity Conference," a three-day conference in Toronto.
One of the speakers talked about her new business which is trying to become the first organ banking company. In the same way that blood and tissue are able to be readily available when needed (providing people keep donating), they hope to have a system available so people would have access to organs when needed. As many organs are currently discarded, due to the lack of nearby available recipients, being able to save the organs would mean that the surgeries wouldn't have to happen in the short time frame that current practice.
The problems they've had in the past with the idea of long-term organ storing has been not knowing how to freeze the organs fast enough that there is no ice formation which destroys the tissue. Also, the liquids that they do use to freeze the organs are quite toxic so they are unable to be used even if they've been properly frozen. And of course, the rewarming process on the other side. There are a lot of problems with long-term storing.
But it seems as though this company has been able to solve most of the problems. Through methods that I didn't fully understand, it seems as though they've managed to quickly freeze the organs with a non-toxic material. And because it freezes from the inside out, there is less stress on the organ itself. They then flush the organs with helium and store them in liquid nitrogen, the same material that companies use to freeze embryos.
The organ banking company feels as though they will be able to store organs for an indefinite amount of time. They also think that by doing this, they could eliminate 5 of the transplant waiting lists within a year in the US. A year!
The long-term storage would also be better for the person receiving the transplant. If they could keep them for a week, the surgeries could be scheduled as non-emergency procedures so people could be in better health. If they could keep them for 6 months, the merging stem cell therapies could be used in conjunction with their frozen organs. The stem cell process would involve taking some of the donor cells and injecting small amounts into the body as a way of preforming an immune adjustment on the body before the actual transplant. They hope this will eliminate transplant rejection as the body has more time to prepare for a new organ.
The organ banking company still has to work out the rewarming part of the organs but the speaker was very confident that was no problem and that everything should be ready for market in 5-7 years. That seems like a very short period of time considering they're still asking for investors. I'm highly skeptical that it will be sweeping the nation in 10 years but I love the idea of the technology. Imagine how magical it would be!
In the Q&A session at the end, the speaker said that she feels eventually the organ transplant process as we know it is going to end as the self-engineered organs (building organs with the person's own cells) process will take over. But her freezing system will still be important as instead of freezing other peoples organs, we'll all have our own self-made frozen organs ready to go in her coolers.
I find this all super fascinating. Without taking anything away from how far organ transplant technology has progressed, I keep wanting technology to jump ahead 10 years so I can 3D print my own lungs from my cells. I could do it all in my living room! I realize that I'm probably not alone in the world in thinking that that the technology that will save them is just out of their reach and if only they could jump ahead 10-15 years. Imagine those people who were dying of infections in 1935 hearing of this magical discovery 'penicillin' that was going to change everything.If only they could have jumped ahead to 1945 when they were starting to mass produce it. The next thing is always just out of reach.
Of course, none of this fancy new technology will work if the super micro bugs take over and antibiotics become obsolete (thanks to the overuse of the aforementioned penicillin). Then it's good bye to all transplants. So maybe jumping ahead 10 years isn't such a good idea after all...