BOSTON (CBS Connecticut) – A new technique could preserve livers for organ donation three times longer than current methods, reports Live Science.

Tested so far only in rats, doctors “supercool” the organ to below freezing temperatures, but without freezing them solid.

This is accomplished by infusing the cells with nontoxic antifreeze compounds that prevent ice crystals from forming. Those crystals can damage the cell tissue.

In addition, the researchers used a machine to pump nutrients to the organs. But the fluids did not need to be pumped the entire time. They were used immediately before freezing and several hours before thawing.

Researchers said this method significantly extended the amount of time rat livers could be preserved for transplantation into donor rats. Normally the organ loses viability after 24 hours, but the scientists were able to store the rats’ livers for up to four days.

All of the rats that received livers that were preserved for three days survived at least three months after their transplants. Nearly 60 percent of the rats that received livers preserved for four days survived that long.

“The fact that livers could be successfully transplanted at all after being stored at subzero temperatures is a novel finding,” said Bote Bruinsma, a medical engineer at Harvard Medical School in Boston.

“The fact this work shows that we can actually use this supercooling technique to markedly extend preservation time is very exciting,” he added.

The next step is to try to replicate the results with human livers. Because human organs are much larger than those of rats, much work remains to be done.

But the scientists say it’s worth the work. Using current techniques, human organs can only be preserved for six to 12 hours before they become unsuitable for transplant.

If it can work for human organs, it could help address the critical shortage of donor organs around the world, say the researchers.

And the same technique might also be applied to organs other than the liver. “We expect only slight modification would be needed for other organs,” Bruinsma told Live Science. Portable refrigerators could help keep the organs supercooled while it is being transported.

The study is published in the journal Nature Medicine.

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