A new research initiative launched by San Ramon-based Donor Network West in collaboration with four other organ procurement groups seeks to increase the lifespan of donated organs to patients throughout the country by funding state-of-the-art research initiatives focused on organ preservation.
Through the Biostasis Research Institute (BRI), Donor Network West -- alongside nationwide organ procurement groups LifeGift, LifeSource, Lifebanc and Nevada Donor Network -- will fund two new research centers at Massachusetts General Hospital and the University of Minnesota with the goal of creating human organ banks through the cryogenic storage of organs donated for transplantation.
These new research centers will develop new methods for preserving tissues, organs and other organisms in extremely cold environments and suspended animation -- slowing and stopping biological processes and deterioration.
"Organ transplantation is one of the greatest achievements of modern medicine. To reach its true potential, we require the scientific ability to preserve our most precious life-saving resource: an organ donor's gifts," said Janice Whaley, president and CEO of Donor Network West.
"These same technologies can also spur innovation in the treatment of disease and organ failure by advancing important clinical research. We are committed to providing life-saving organs and tissues to all patients in need, with the hope of one day eliminating the organ transplant waiting list. The launch of the Biostasis Research Institute supports our ability to fulfill that commitment," Whaley added.
According to Donor Network West staff, research efforts will be concentrated toward three key goals: Creating the first human organ cryopreservation to save children in need of a transplant, creating the first functional human brain banks and extending the storage time of kidney transplants from days to weeks.
"This institute is another major step forward in the ability to store life," said Jedediah Lewis, founder and director of the BRI. "These technologies can bring to science and medicine what other domains, such as energy and agriculture, have taken for granted for centuries: practical, widespread distribution of humanity's most important lifesaving resources. The benefits for human health will be profound."
For goal No. 1, Donor Network West staff explain that while infants and children in need of a transplant typically have a difficult time finding a matching donor, donor infant organs are discarded at a higher rate than adults due to suitable recipients often being far away from a donor's location. By developing organ cryopreservation for this group, the BRI aims to preserve the supply for longer, enabling those who need organs most to have increased opportunities.
BRI also aims to increase treatment of brain diseases such as Alzheimer's disease and epilepsy by creating the first functional human brain bank. By developing technology and practices that ensure that donated brain tissue is preserved for longer, researchers will have more time to study the material, enabling increased opportunity for breakthroughs.
"Today sections of human brain tissue can be donated and studied in the laboratory, however it is incredibly scarce because the brain tissue cannot be donated on a large scale and stored without destroying the tissue's function," Donor Network West staff said in a statement.
"The BRI aims to create the first technologies for routine brain donation and biobanking that keep the brain tissue viable during long-term storage. These functional brain banks will be a transformative new resource for neuroscience and drug discovery," they added.
The group has also set its sights on increasing the storage time for kidney transplants, which would allow thousands more kidneys to be transported every year throughout the world.
"Today kidneys and other organs must reach their recipient within hours after they are donated, limiting the options to find a suitable match between donors and recipients," Donor Network West staff said. "These technologies can also allow many more kidney recipients to avoid lifelong immunosuppression treatment, freeing them from life-threatening infections, cancer, and other illnesses."
To achieve these goals, the BRI will be working with the Center for Biostasis at Massachusetts General Hospital, who will create new technologies to control materials reactions at extreme temperature changes, among other methodologies. This center will be housed at the largest Harvard-affiliated research hospital and led by Drs. Mehmet Toner, Korkut Uygun and Shannon Tessier.
The BRI will also be working with the Organ and Tissue Preservation Center at the University of Minnesota, which will focus on safely and rapidly rewarm cryopreserved organs and other living systems. This center will be housed within the University of Minnesota Institute for Engineering in Medicine and will be led by director Dr. John Bischof and Department of Surgery faculty member Dr. Erik Finger.
"Almost one third of all deaths in the United States are caused by organ failure. Today less than 3% of this need is being met by organ transplantation in the U.S. and even less globally," said Dr. Sebastian Giwa, founder of the Organ Preservation Alliance.
"A major contributor to the problem is the inability to store organs; the establishment of organ banks could make thousands more transplants possible, while adding years and sometimes decades of healthy life for organ recipients compared with transplantation today," Giwa added.
In addition to the five U.S. organ procurement nonprofits that founded and fund the organization, other BRI founders and donors include the Organ Preservation Alliance, Bitcoin philanthropic foundation the Pineapple Fund, Skype co-founder Jaan Tallinn, Massachusetts General Hospital's Department of Surgery, the University of Minnesota Medical School and Organ Preservation Alliance co-founders Lewis and Dr. Giwa.