“We want to help the ultimate heroes, the companies, like those in ARMI, who will actually build the tissue and organs,” said Dr. Xiaoxi Wei, co-founder of X-Therma a company focused on the storage and transportation of cells and tissue and a hero in her own right as she devises new chemicals and new processes to change the way human organs for transplant are preserved.
X-Therma, the startup Wei founded with her husband and fellow University of Buffalo alumnus Dr. Mark Kline, conducts research in the preservation of biological cells and tissues using advanced chemistry. Specifically, they are seeking a way to preserve human organs for transplant for far longer than their current shelf life of four to 16 hours.
Wei became interested in cellular survival and transplant technology in elementary school after her grandfather died due to cirrhosis. She learned how fish are able to survive at below-freezing temperatures and that some organisms, such as frogs, can be completely frozen and awakened later. “My father encouraged me to be the ‘biohacker’ who can figure out how to freeze biological tissue for someone in need of a transplant, and I wanted to try it.”
X-Therma’s research centers on creating a more effective ice-prevention material than what is currently used in organ preservation by designing molecules that can imitate antifreeze proteins found in nature. The idea is to mimic the process that allows certain frogs to go into a kind of suspended animation for long periods of time at below-freezing temperatures, then revive undamaged when warmer temperatures return.
Wei realized there was a still a lack of fundamental chemical understanding in the field of cryobiology, which she views as the reason no one has made a major breakthrough, “I learned that the chemical concentrations needed to preserve organs long-term cause significant degradation and damage to an organ’s cells and lead to failure. I needed to study chemistry to figure out how to change that.”
Wei and Kline founded X-Therma in Berkeley, Calif., in 2014, soon after earning their doctorates in medicinal chemistry. Wei is the CEO, Kline the COO and chief technology officer. The company has received several million dollars in funding, mostly from Small Business Innovation Research contracts from the Department of Defense, and now has a team of 12 scientists and business personnel on staff.
“The mission of X-Therma is to engineer the preservation of tissues and human organs so that they can be accessed on demand and to assist companies in regenerative medicine with access to off-the-shelf organs available immediately instead of having to be on a wait list and then having a very limited transplantation window when an organ becomes available,” Wei said.
“Current tissue and organ preservation techniques cannot reliably prevent the formation of ice crystals that damage biological tissue once temperatures drop beneath 4 degrees Celsius,” added Kline, “The crystals cause cells to shrivel or collapse and blood vessels to crack; hence, the inability to preserve organs for any longer than a few hours. This is still a complex challenge.”
Or, as Wei puts it, “Ice is our enemy.”
Wei explained, “Some animals have evolved amazing ice crystal control and can survive hazardous winters without being frozen. What their bodies do naturally is about 100 to 10,000 times more effective than any antifreeze we’re using currently in our industry.”
“At X-Therma, we have developed a state-of-the-art ice-blocking preservation solution that is DMSO-free, protein-free, serum-free, and chemically defined to help with the challenges. Our non-toxic antifreeze material offers safer transport and long-term Biobanking, that is going to transform the regenerative medicine market by enabling new technologies and therapies,” noted Kline.
X-Therma hopes to assist members of ARMI|BioFabUSA in what Kline described as a ‘broken road.’
“There are cars almost ready for the road and the road is somewhat built in regenerative medicine,” Kline commented, “At X-Therma we want to ensure that there are no ‘potholes’ on that road going forward,” he explained. “We hope to work with other ARMI members on the infrastructure for better regenerative medicine products.”
Wei and Kline recently welcomed their first baby into the world and they are proud he became the first donor and “Patient” for the X-Therma CORDX program.
A medical team at Kaiser Permanente Oakland Medical Center collected the cord blood, cord tissue and placenta from the newborn with X-Therma’s collection kit. The cord and placental stem cells and tissues were then seamlessly delivered to X-Therma’s facility in Richmond and cryopreserved with the XT-ViVoTM product series in liquid nitrogen following GMP standard practices.
“The future revival of such stem cells and tissues in regenerative medicine will benefit from non-toxic solutions when recovering from freezing,” according to Kline.
With 120,000 Americans on the organ transplant waiting list, 25,000 transplants a year and one patient dying each hour while awaiting a transplant, Wei is determined to help find a solution to the problem which will be a fitting tribute to her grandfather—and a new lease on life for countless people on the transplant list.
Stem cells and tissues recovered after cold storage, says Wei, could be useful for cell therapy and similar advances in the fight against cancer and other diseases. “This is just the beginning,” she says.