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Creating time: How emulating nature can help us improve outcomes for organ transplant patients

I have spent my life thinking about time. How to pause it. How to create more of it. How to extend it, so that people might have longer, healthier, happier lives.

It is the primary question I have pursued throughout my scientific career. It’s at the heart of the work I’ve done at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, and it is the reason I started X-Therma, a company developing a novel technology to increase the amount of time a cell or organ can be kept alive by using below-freezing temperatures: I want to give people more time.

X-Therma’s technology is a chemically derived solution that mimics naturally occurring processes in plants and animals across the natural world, allowing cells and organs to survive at below-freezing temperatures. Our technology enables cells and organs to be frozen longer, preserving them for transplant, cell and gene therapies, and research. We’re creating time. The current modes of preservation come with a host of issues, chief among them is that they offer very short windows of time before cells and organs become unusable.

Our technology not only emulates nature, it improves upon it — and tests conducted in our labs and by research partners around the world show incredible promise to hold organs at subzero temperature without ice.

This brings me a great deal of joy as a scientist, of course. But it also brings me a great deal of hope as a human being.

My grandfather died when I was 8 years old from late-stage liver disease. A liver transplant would have saved him, but like so many others on the organ transplant list, he did not get one in time. As a child, it seemed impossible that such a thing could have happened. My grandfather was a decorated World War II veteran and a kung fu master. He once single-handedly stopped a street robbery by two young men — at the age of 70. I could hear the wind from his kicks as he practiced in the yard while I watched from the window as a child. To know he could have lived even longer had he been able to get the transplant he needed remains one of the greatest frustrations of my life.

I am from a family of scientists, inventors and entrepreneurs. My mother is a doctor, my father an engineer. I understood early on that if I was frustrated by my grandfather’s loss, I could perhaps do something to give other families more time with the people they love.

As I studied the sciences, first as a child, then as a college student and through my Ph.D., and ultimately now as CEO, I learned that a staggering number of donated organs are unused. They’re unable to be used because our current systems cannot get them in time to people who need them. Most organs have a very short shelf life on ice, meaning there is a small window between the time an organ is donated to when that organ can be transplanted.

This affects everyone connected with a transplant. It affects patients and families, who only want more time together. It affects surgeons and doctors who need time to complete a transplant safely and effectively. And on a scientific level, it affects the researchers who study everything from cell and gene therapy to all regenerative medicine, including organ transplantation.

Our work is not the cryopreservation of science fiction. It is based in nature, in the aquatic species who remain alive in freezing temperatures for multiple consecutive months. We have spent decades studying these animals, understanding their systems on a molecular level, and developing a chemical solution that mirrors the biological processes that keep them alive. That the solution is chemically based is important: It allows us to ensure consistency and to produce it at scale. I’ll be sharing more about that in the coming months.

I intend to use this space to talk more about our science, about the field of cryopreservation, about cell and gene therapies and regenerative medicine, and, of course, about organ transplantation, and the world that might be possible when we have better technologies and systems in place to give people what they need: more time.

Nature has shown us it is possible. We just need to harness that power — and I believe we are well on our way.


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