Interview: Roman Bauer On The Future Of Cryopreservation

Computational neuroscience models and analyzed neural tissues during development and degeneration

Roman Bauer — neuroscience, AI, cancer research and cryopreservation

You may wonder: what exactly does a computational biologist do? The term covers a range of jobs, from data analyst, data curator, database developer, statistician, mathematical modeler, bioinformatician, software developer… Basically all those scientists that decided to rely on new technologies for the development of analyzed data and useful models.

Roman Bauer and a picture of his work in Modeling Retinal Cryopreservation. The retina is an extension of the brain: understanding better how it works will help us to master the brain as a whole.

How and when did you get interested in cryopreservation?

It was about 10 years ago, during a time when I started thinking more deeply about mortality. It was mainly due to the death of a very good friend of mine. He was diagnosed with cancer at the age of 32, and died 2 years later. His cancer and subsequent death happened despite his very healthy lifestyle (he had never smoked, never drank alcohol, did competitive sports, etc.). I experienced his feelings and the impact that his condition had on his family and friends. This event really woke me up and I thought how wonderful it would be if there were a way to pause the dying process that entails so much physical as well as mental pain.

How is cryopreservation currently used? And how could it be used in the future?

Currently, cryopreservation is predominantly being used for the preservation of cells (e.g., sperm, stem cells, seeds) rather than tissues. Moreover, it is mainly based on experimental techniques rather than computational methods. So there is a lot of heuristic work and trial-and-error based work. There is also a gap between what can be achieved for cells and organs/individuals today, and I find it very exciting to work on closing this chasm.

Cryopreservation research — Image Credit : futura-science

What are the challenges connected with cryopreservation and why is it so hard to achieve thawing on more complex tissues?

The nature of the challenges depends on the cryopreservation process. There are two well-established methods, namely “vitrification” and “slow-cooling”. Vitrification has led to many advances and is currently more widely used than slow-cooling. However, it requires that the temperature drops quickly, which is not an option for volumes at the scale of organs. Otherwise very high concentrations of toxic cryoprotective agents are required. Hence, such toxicity is highly problematic for complex tissues.

How is AI and machine learning helping us solve these challenges?

The usage of computational modeling and simulations in cryopreservation is growing, as there is significant potential. Indeed, computational/bioinformatics methods have already revolutionized so many other biomedical fields such as genomics or neuroscience. In my recent research project funded by the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council of the UK (EPSRC), we exactly address this opportunity. We are currently in the process of writing up our results, which confirm that there is a lot to be gained from applying ML techniques. Along those lines, we can create a “virtual testbed” to computationally simulate expected changes to cells, and use sophisticated optimisation methods to determine better protocol parameters. I am describing this work also on my personal website www.romanbauer.net.

Computational analysis and modeling can help us study and understand diseases

In your opinion and knowledge, how far are we from finally succeeding?

If by “succeeding” you mean the capability to cryopreserve human organs: this is very difficult to say because science does not progress predictably. Einstein famously said: “If we knew what it is we were doing, it would not be called research. Would it?”. But I know that we are currently only scratching the surface, and the field needs to gain momentum. I don’t know of any University programme where there is a dedicated module on cryopreservation. Instead, cryopreservation is more often understood as a set of protocols that are employed on demand, as a service to research groups. If there was more appreciation for cryopreservation as an academic field of research and topic for student education, it would go a long way.

Speaking of human cryopreservation, when and how did you meet this topic for the first time?

I suppose it was a story or movie (probably the classic fairy tale “Dornroeschen” or maybe the movie “Forever Young” with Mel Gibson) when I first came in touch with this idea of preserving a human. At the time, I was very young and did not think much more about it. But it sort of lingered at the back of my mind, and galvanized when I read “The Prospect of Immortality” by Robert Ettinger.

What are the consequences connected with the success of thawing and revival?

It would be the biggest achievement of humanity since the invention of the wheel. Patients with terminal cancer or severe degenerative diseases would have the chance to be cured in the future. Long-distance space travel and the colonization of outer planets would become viable options. Emergency medicine would be revolutionized. The positive consequences are numerous.

How could organ and human cryopreservation improve our society?

Both types of cryopreservation would be of immense value. The study of Giwa et al. (Nature Biotechnology, 2017) claims that the availability of sufficient organs could theoretically prevent > 30% of all deaths. The healthy lifespan of the average human would be significantly improved.

Biostasis and organ banks could be great tools towards equality. But how do we make sure we go in the right direction?

Cryopreservation is currently less academic and receives less public funding than many other scientific fields. I noticed that particularly well because my background is in Computational Neuroscience, where there is a long-standing and well-established culture of freely available datasets and tools. Commercial interests and legal restrictions play a big role in cryopreservation, which has led to lots of IP being protected or licensed, and rendering it more challenging to easily collaborate and democratize the research. So I think we need more research funding where it is a requirement for the results to be made available as open access, and that supports international collaboration.

How would the healthcare system change if people in need of organs could count on an organ bank?

If you could make people reflect about something, what would it be?

Cryopreservation is a young and small field that has lots of potential. You don’t need to be a researcher or a billionaire to contribute to it, nor do you need to be involved full-time. If you are willing to commit, there is a way to make a big difference. So if you are interested in this topic, my advice is to think very carefully about what path fits best with your mindset, your passions and what really energizes you.

Roman Bauer at Biostasis2021

At the Biostasis2021 Conference, we had the pleasure to personally meet Roman Bauer and listen to his talk about “The Future of Cryopreservation: Computational Approaches and Automatisation”. Check the full speech if you want to learn more about his project BioDynaMo and about his effort in building a computational approach to cryopreservation.

Conclusion

The cryonics community is made up of different individuals who are using their knowledge for the advancement of this science. At Tomorrow Biostasis we expect great results!

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