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Is the Secret to Cryopreserving Human Tissues & Organs Hiding in Frogs?

Is the Secret to Cryopreserving Human Tissues & Organs Hiding in Frogs?

Is the Secret to Cryopreserving Human Tissues & Organs Hiding in Frogs?


Dave Jobes, Ph.D.

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Did you know that some frog species have adaptations that allow them to survive winter frozen solid, without harm? Enter the common wood frog (scientific name Rana sylvatica)! This little amphibian has evolved a series of ways to survive harsh winters. Its habitat ranges widely from the Appalachians all the way up to Alaska and the Arctic Circle, so it is routinely exposed to harsh, cold temperatures.  One of the most intriguing parts of its survival mechanism, and the one that has direct human applications (see below) is how it uses concentrated glucose (sugar) in its body to keep its cells intact while frozen, since ice crystals would ordinarily cause significant damage to most cells, ultimately leading to death. It’s a bit like a natural antifreeze that keeps the cells intact and viable.

I first learned of this “frozen frog” phenomenon years ago while an undergraduate at Miami University in Oxford, OH. Professor Jon Costanzo is a pioneer in the field of cryobiology, and has used the wood frog as a model system. His research has profound implications for humans as we work to find ways of preserving human cells, tissue, and even whole bodies, and there are now numerous companies working with offshoots of this discovery. For instance, a company here in Maryland called Cellphire uses a sugar-based strategy to preserve platelets, which are notoriously hard to keep for an extended period of time. Platelets, which are a critical “ingredient” to help blood clotting, can be stored usually only for 5-7 days; however, using a sugar technology like Cellphire’s, the shelf life can be extended by at least 2 years! Imagine the lives that can be saved with a steady, fresh supply of platelets. Hospitals, clinics, and the military will all directly benefit from a technology that has its roots in nature, including the humble frog!

Back to our frozen frog friend. If you’d like to see a short video of this remarkable event, have a look here: https://nj.pbslearningmedia.org/resource/lsps07.sci.life.evo.frozenfrogs/frozen-frogs/.  The video features Dr. Costanzo discussing the frog and the freezing process, which you will actually see in action. Even if you are not a hardcore science buff, you’ll appreciate this video!