Melbourne scientists say they've made a discovery that could lead to organ transplant waitlists becoming a problem of the past.
The group of RMIT University researchers has been looking at ways to preserve human cells through "cryopreservation", which involves cooling biological specimens down to very low temperatures so they can be stored for long periods of time.
"Cryoprotective agents" help the process by essentially acting like an antifreeze for a car engine, stopping ice crystals from forming inside the cells. That way, the crystals don't damage them.
Cryopreservation practices have for the past 50 years largely relied on the same two cryoprotective agents, but they don't work for organs and many types of cells.
The researchers discovered a new cryoprotectant with two agents, proline and glycerol, that was effective for four cells they tested, including skin and brain cells.
"This cryoprotectant was more effective and less toxic than its individual components," lead researcher Saffron Bryant said.
Before freezing the cells, the scientists incubated them with the cryoprotectant at 37 degrees for several hours.
They say the finding could lead to the development of thousands more tailor-made cryoprotective agents, which could be targeted towards specific cell types and potentially help keep donated organs viable for years, rather than hours.
About 1850 people are on the waiting list for an organ transplant in Australia, but about 60 per cent of all donated hearts and lungs get discarded, Dr Bryant said.
"We only have hours to get an organ from a donor to a recipient," she said.
"If someone's in a car accident in Melbourne, for example, you're limited to Melbourne and areas immediately surrounding it because the chances of getting it to the airport, even to take it to Sydney, are practically zero."
Dr Bryant said the cells' viability after incubation and freezing showed organs could be exposed to cryoprotectants long enough for them to penetrate their deepest layers, without causing damage.
However, she cautioned there was still a long way to go with the research.
"We've only looked at single cells and it's a much more complicated process for organs," Dr Bryant said.
"But if we can develop this approach to store organs, we could eliminate organ shortages - there would be no waiting lists at all."
The scientists plan to look at ways of cryopreserving new cell types as a next phase in their research. Those cells include some that can't be frozen and kept viable using current methods.