Just 10% of the worldwide need for organ transplantation is met annually, according to estimates from the World Health Organization. The ability to replace organs on demand could save or improve millions of lives around the world each year. Like blood stored in blood banks, the benefits of organ banks would be immeasurable — on par with a cure for cancer, according to an article published in Nature Biotechnology in 2017.

“On demand,” however, would require an organ to be ready — off the shelf, so to speak. Currently, an organ, once removed from a donor’s body, can only be preserved for up to a day if it’s an abdominal organ such as a kidney or liver. The heart and lungs can only be preserved outside of the body for a few hours. To increase the number of organs available for transplants, researchers at Oregon State University are trying to push the preservation window for all organs to a few days.

It wasn’t the possibility of finding an answer to this supply-and-demand
problem that first aroused Matt Andrews’ research interest in the early 2000s. It was a little half-pound rodent known as the thirteen-lined ground squirrel.

During hibernation, the squirrel’s body temperature is only slightly above freezing, and its heart rate can be as low as three to 10 beats per minute, compared with 300 to 400 beats per minute when the animal is active. Embarking on a quest to find out how the little hibernators survive these extremes of low blood flow and depressed metabolic rates, he found that the squirrels produce two natural compounds that enable them to lower their metabolism without harming their organs.

Andrews, a professor and the executive associate dean in OSU’s College of Science, then applied his findings to the problem of organ preservation. First, he created a portable biomedical solution containing the two compounds. In trials, injections of the mixture helped animals suffering from severe blood loss survive up to four times longer, Andrews says.

The next step was organ preservation. Andrews collaborated with Adam Higgins, an expert in cell storage using different types of cooling, to devise a refrigeration strategy. Higgins is an associate professor of bioengineering in OSU’s College of Engineering.

Explaining how their work might be applied in real life, Andrews says, “If an organ donor is brain-dead, and the family says, ‘OK, disconnect our family member from life support,’ a physician could then precondition the body with our solution. The heart would pump it through each organ. All of the organs then have a metabolism similar to an animal in hibernation.”

The organs could then be harvested and refrigerated, enabling a longer shelf life.

Although the research is still at an early stage, Brian Wall, assistant vice president for research, commercialization and industry partnerships at OSU, says the Advantage Accelerator Aid program has provided early-stage venture development funding for the project. “We are enthusiastic about the potential societal impact of the innovation,” he says.

Adam Higgins, associate professor in OSU’s College of Engineering, checks a tissue sample as Mathew Andrews, professor and the executive associate dean in OSU’s College of Science, looks on.
(Photo: Ian Vorster)