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Arctic fish 'antifreeze' to aid organ storage

Arctic CharOne of the four £50,000 Philanthropy Awards will support Dr Matthew Gibson of the Chemistry Department in his research to develop a synthetic polymer 'antifreeze' based on polar fish glycoproteins to improve blood and organ storage and transplant success.

Bio-banking crisis

Matthew said:

There is a real, urgent need to increase the supply of organs and blood to meet the demand for transplants and regenerative therapy associated with an increasing ageing population. In a ten year period, organ demand increased by 25% in the UK alone, while organ donation remained static, leaving us with a chronic shortage of biological materials. Better storage of human tissues could address this bio-banking crisis."

A chilling problem

Conventional cryopreservation has a number of downsides, including damage to cells during both the freezing and thawing process, and the use of toxic organic solvents, required to prevent ice crystal growth, which cause unpleasant and dangerous side effects for the transplant recipient.

Matthew added:

Cryopreservation hasn't changed in about 40 years. This research is redefining the field of preservation. Until now, we've had to rely on storing blood in fridges, giving them only a 42 day shelf-life. This new freezing method means that we could potentially store blood indefinitely."

Synthesising nature's solution

Many fish have evolved proteins which slow the growth of ice crystals, enabling them to survive in subzero environments. These super-active glycoproteins effectively act as an internal 'antifreeze'. Although the solution exists in nature, the proteins are difficult to extract and hard to synthesise chemically. Matthew will work on designing synthetic polymers (soluble plastics) which can reproduce the antifreeze effect of the proteins; providing a cheaper, more effective and less toxic alternative to current cryopreservation methods.

Matthew added:

This new method looks very promising in terms of vastly extending the shelf life of blood and organs stored for medical procedures. We're also excited by the scope for other applications including cell-based therapeutics for patients with rare and serious diseases including certain cancers and neurological conditions. The Philanthropy Award enables us to develop clinical applications, working with the Medical School and local hospitals. Such cross-displinary research is hard to fund traditionally, so this is really exciting to work on."

Find out more

You can find out more about Matthew's work on the Chemistry Department webpages, read an article about Matthew's work on the BBC Coventry & Warwickshire website, and read the study, ‘Synthetic polymers enable non-vitreous cellular cryopreservation by reducing ice crystal growth during thawing’ in the journal Nature Communications. You can also follow the Gibson Lab on Twitter to get all the latest updates from Matthew's team.

Discover the many ways philanthopic donations support research at Warwick on the Giving webpages.

Play the video below to hear Matthew describing his research and explaining how the Philanthropy Award has helped his team.

Photo: Jenny Knipp