Putting AI to work in cryopreservation

Oxford Cryotechnology is deploying computational and machine learning technologies to improve cryopreservation methods.

Cryopreservation – the concept of placing cells, organs and even whole organisms into a state of suspended animation to preserve their viability – is, for most, the stuff of science fiction. But, while there are a few companies focused on distant idea human cryopreservation (also known as cryonics), the technology is already widely used today for the preservation of cells (‘freezing’ eggs for IVF, for example) and very small tissue samples.

Last month, a new player emerged in the field of cryopreservation. Co-founded by an eminent aging researcher, a computational biology expert, and a cryonics entrepreneur, Oxford Cryotechnology is aiming to advance the field to meet the health demands of aging populations.

Longevity.Technology: The potential of cryobiology in human longevity is huge. From enabling reliable stem cell storage systems to long-term organ banking for transplants, the implications for human health are significant. But much more research is required before whole organs (and ultimately humans) can successfully be cryopreserved, so improving preservation methods is a must. To learn how Oxford Cryotechnology plans to address this challenge, we caught up with two of its founders – Professor João Pedro de Magalhães, Chair of Molecular Biogerontology at the University of Birmingham, and Dr Emil Kendziorra, CEO of cryonics company Tomorrow Bio.

Along with their other co-founder, Dr Roman Bauer, a computational cryopreservation researcher at the University of Surrey, de Magalhães and Kendziorra have been talking for a couple of years about the potential of cryotechnology in longevity.

“I suppose I’ve always seen cryonics as a plan B,” says de Magalhães. “A backup plan, in case progress in the aging field doesn’t happen fast enough.”

“And I’ve always hoped that he’s right!” says Kendziorra.

Potential of cryobiology ‘greatly underestimated’

Joking aside, de Magalhães believes that cryobiology is a greatly underestimated field in terms of its potential.

“It’s a very small, niche field, even compared to longevity and aging, and that’s something I’ve always found quite remarkable,” he says. “There are so many applications of it – if we could cryopreserve human organs, for example, it would save thousands of lives every year.”

Oxford Cryo was formed, says de Magalhães, to try to push cryobiology forward “by applying some of the data-driven machine learning and computational methods that we’ve successfully applied in improving our understanding of aging and longevity.”

Kendziorra says that Oxford Cryo is a “technologies company” that is aiming to build a core technology that can then be rolled out into multiple applications.

“We’ll initially be focused on short-term applications like cell and tissue preservation,” he says. “That will be followed by mid-term and long-term applications, like organ preservation and human cryopreservation, where a tremendous amount of research is still needed.”

Early focus on cryoprotectants

One of the main limitations of cryotechnology today relates to the use of cryoprotective agents, which are designed to prevent the damaging effects of ice formation. Unfortunately, prolonged exposure to current cryoprotective agents has toxic effects on human tissues.

Although cryotechnology is already being used to preserve cells, it doesn’t mean the technology is yet perfect, even for that purpose.

“Yes, you can preserve primary cells today, but a lot of cells die in the process due to issues like toxicity,” says de Magalhães. “And when you move up to tissues and organs, the problem becomes even bigger.”

The issue of toxicity means that Oxford Cryo is putting cryoprotectants at the forefront of its strategy.

“We aim to build on some of the work we’ve already done on cryoprotectants,” says de Magalhães. “The idea is to employ data from molecular signatures of cryoprotectants to try to better identify what mechanisms of toxicity are involved and to identify new neutralizers of toxicity.”

“We will use network pharmacology and drug repositioning data-driven approaches, that we’ve successfully used in longevity, to discover new formulations or to improve on existing formulations using potentially new cryoprotectants or toxicity neutralizers.”  

Organ biobanking the ‘holy grail’

Being able to one day create an organ biobank would, says Kendziorra, be the ultimate goal for Oxford Cryo.

“Depending on the organ, you currently have a window of up to 12 hours for transportation,” he says. “If you could even improve that to 24 hours, you would be able to transport an organ anywhere in the world. That’s the lower-hanging fruit.”

“But if we can achieve organ biobanking, where you can store an organ for a year or 10 years, the big advantage would be that you now not only can transport the organ wherever you need it, but you can also perfectly match the organ to the recipient. This, I think, would be the holy grail in the field.”

Having only just opened its doors, Oxford Cryo is now preparing to validate its approach and nail down its first patents.