When Xiaoxi Wei (PhD ’14) was a little girl in Dongying, China, something bad happened. But it inspired a big idea.
“My favorite person was my grandfather,” she says. “His life was taken away by cirrhosis because he couldn’t get a liver transplant. At that time I was 8 years old. I wanted to do something to change the world of transplantation. I felt I could save a lot of lives just like my grandfather’s.”
A quarter century later, Wei is still focused on that goal. X-Therma, the startup she founded with her husband and fellow UB alumnus, Mark Kline (PhD ’14), conducts research in cryogenics—not the weird fantasy pseudoscience of freezing people and reanimating them at a future date, but the real science of low-temperature biophysics. 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.
“The goal is to try to engineer preservation of tissues and human organs so that you can access them on demand,” Wei says of their fledgling company and the cold-storage organ bank they hope to make a reality. “That means you will have 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 and Kline founded X-Therma in Berkeley, Calif., in 2014, soon after earning their doctorates in medicinal chemistry at UB; Wei is the CEO, Kline the COO and chief technology officer. The company has worked primarily at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory’s Molecular Foundry, an epicenter of scientific research and venture capital. It 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 11 on the science and business sides.
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.
Current organ preservation techniques cannot prevent the formation of ice crystals that damage biological tissue once temperatures drop beneath 4 degrees Celsius. The crystals cause cells to shrivel or collapse and blood vessels to dissolve; hence, the inability to preserve organs for any longer than a few hours. Or, as Wei puts it, “ice is our enemy.”
By contrast, she says, “some animals have evolved amazing ice crystal control and can survive hazardous winters without being frozen.” What their bodies do naturally, she adds, “is about 100 to 10,000 times more effective than any antifreeze we’re using currently in our industry.”
Wei and Kline aren’t the only ones motivated to solve this problem; indeed, there’s something of a gold rush underway in entrepreneurial cryobiology circles. In 2015, the U.S. Department of Defense started an initiative called Organs on Demand that funnels millions of dollars to labs working on tissue and organ cryopreservation research. Venture capitalists, charities and philanthropists are also getting involved. Last year, scientists at Harvard and at the University of Warwick in England announced separate advances in potential methods for thawing and freezing organs for transplant.
Wei is singularly well prepared for the space she occupies at the intersection of temperature science and entrepreneurship. Raised by a physician mother and a petrochemical engineer father who also had a business involving heat-transfer technology for the petroleum industry, she received plenty of encouragement to pursue a career in science. After graduating with highest honors from Ningbo University in China, she came to UB to pursue her PhD under chemistry professor Bing Gong, one of the world’s leading supramolecular chemists specializing in folded nanostructure. “I wanted to change the nature of chemistry in this field,” Wei says. “Bing Gong is very, very famous. I came to Buffalo to learn from him.”
Wei also found something else at UB: Kline, who had begun his PhD studies the semester before. The couple are now married and have a baby who has, in a sense, become a part of their mission. The newborn’s umbilical cord blood and tissue are the first to be collected and cryopreserved with X-Therma equipment for potential future revival. 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.
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 a seemingly intractable problem. If she succeeds, it’ll be a fitting tribute to her grandfather—and a new lease on life for countless people on the transplant list.