Freeze-dried valves are used for transplants

There are over 115,000 individuals on the organ transplant list who must wait months to find compatible organ donors. Thousands of patients in need of replacement hearts, kidneys and other essential organs lose their lives each year while waiting for matches that would make a transplant possible. Recently however, scientists have come closer to reducing this costly gap between available organs and the recipients who need them.

A team of scientists based in Hannover, Germany conducted a successful surgery involving sheep heart valve tissues that were freeze-dried and rehydrated. The preparation process involved scientists stripping the heart valve of its live cells, soaking the underlying structure of the valve in solution and freeze-drying the tissue to remove moisture.

“At the end you get something that looks like beef jerky,” said lead researcher Andres Hilfiker to New Scientist Magazine. Once they need the heart valves for surgery, scientists soak the jerky-like tissue in a solution for 24 hours, rehydrating and making it viable for operation.

According to the researchers, the result is the possibility of holding the heart valve indefinitely in a room-temperature facility until someone requires the tissue for surgery.

This new technique marks a significant shift in the ranges of use for biological samples. The former, most suitable method for storing biological samples is to hold them in a sub-zero locker. “That only leaves you four months to find a recipient,” said Hilfiker. With the first strides taking place in new methods of storage, they hope they could stretch storage time significantly.

“Advances in heart valve technology are essential for improvement of patient care,” said John Jansen, a co-editor of the paper, to Digital Journal. Freeze-drying could not only be cheaper, but will also give surgeons a broader variety of samples to use that better match with their patient.

While this only involved the use of tissue in sheep, the scientists are hopeful to soon apply the same principle to transplants involving the bladder and liver. What adds to the hope of these researchers is the ability of the tissue to grow once inserted into the recipient, making it more likely for a more viable match for the patient.

Currently, following the passing of an organ donor, doctors have anywhere between six hours and two days to transplant an organ to a recipient who needs it, depending on organ type. If a situation occurs where the organ is transplanted outside of that window, it is no longer suitable for surgery. Although more research is needed for larger, more complex organs, freeze-drying tissue could increase the pool of available organs for surgery and reduce the number of patients on the organ transplant list to a fraction of what it is currently.