Freezing can be a great way of preserving assorted foodstuffs or biological tissues and organs, but it’s not without its risks. The formation of sharp ice crystals can damage cell membranes, while the defrosting process comes with its own potential dangers.
Scientists from Massachusetts General Hospital (MGH), the original and largest teaching hospital at Harvard Medical School, may have changed the game with a new piece of research, however. They have developed a method of maintaining water and water-based solutions in their liquid form for long periods of time, at temperatures far below the usual freezing point. The breakthrough could have major implications for long-term safe preservation of everything from blood cells and organs to the food we eat.
“We have kept water at temperatures as low as minus-20 degrees Celsius (minus-4 degrees Fahrenheit) for as long as 100 days as water, [without] freezing,” O. Berk Usta, assistant professor of Surgery at the Center for Engineering in Medicine at MGH, told Digital Trends. “The approach relies on simply putting a layer of hydrocarbon solution, such as oils, short alkanes or alcohols, on top of the water in a solid container. This drastically suppresses the ice-nucleation events at the water-air interface by replacing it with a water-hydrocarbon interface.”
In an experiment, the researchers demonstrated that it is possible to more than double the amount of time, from the clinical standard approach, that red blood cells can be stored. At present, red blood cells can be stored for a maximum of 42 days. Using this new approach, it was possible to extend this up to 100 days.
Alongside the immediate practical applications, the researchers also believe that this discovery could enable fundamental scientific research by making it possible to study liquid phase reactions at a much lower temperature than is currently possible.
Heck, who knows — although this approach studiously avoids actual freezing, maybe it could prompt advances in the kind of long-term cryogenic preservation process that scientists, sci-fi authors, and, allegedly, Walt Disney have speculated about for years.
“We are now focused on increasing the volume of the preserved liquid phase from the 1-100 milliliter range to 500 milliliters to enable mass preservation of samples,” Usta continued. “[We also want to translate] our approach to the preservation of exotic cell types and organs, such as the liver, since our center already has a very active cell and organ preservation research thrust. Through collaborations, we are also looking into further understanding our observations by conducting [additional] computational and laboratory experiments.”
A paper describing the work was recently published in the journal Nature Communications.
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