July 12, 2004

Biotech Firm Hopes Tissue-freezing Patent Heats Up Sales

Dennis Quick  /  CRBJ

Limping athletes and others with damaged knee cartilage soon may be jumping in celebration.

Degenerative arthritis sufferers and heart patients might join them. That's because Organ Recovery Systems Inc., a Charleston biotechnology firm, has received a patent for a storage technology that enables tissues to be preserved intact in sub-zero temperatures and used later to repair damaged organs and joints.

It's a technology ORS hopes will prove lucrative as the firm plans to license the technology to tissue banks and biotech labs. "We're just getting started with the licensing," says ORS Senior Vice President Kelvin Brockbank. He adds that ORS representatives sought potential licensees at a June tissue-regeneration conference in Seattle.

About 600 representatives from tissue-engineering companies, academic research groups and venture capital firms attended the weeklong conference. Instead of preserving human tissue in ice-the traditional method-ORS freezes the tissue in liquid nitrogen at Fahrenheit temperatures ranging from 135 degrees to 190 degrees below zero. A glass coating forms around cells and tissues and preserves them intact. The process, called vitrification, is safer and more efficient than ice-based preservation, which damages tissues and prevents muscles from fully functioning, claims Brockbank.

Vitrification restores muscles "close to 100%" of functionality. Theoretically, this technology can preserve tissues "for thousands of years," says Brockbank. However, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration requires that preserved tissues be re-packaged every five years–-an activity the frequency of which could threaten the chances of eternal preservation.

Burn victims needing skin transplants also benefit from vitrification, says Brockbank. The technology's long-term goal is to preserve organs such as livers, hearts and kidneys for transplants. Experts say vitrification could help increase the supply of transplant organs, thus shortening waiting lists for patients who need those organs.

In a May 2001 interview with the Business Journal, Brockbank saw long-term cell and tissue storage as having a market potential exceeding $1 billion. According to international marketing research firm Frost & Sullivan, private spending on tissue engineering and regenerative research has already reached $5 billion in the United States and is expected to grow. Exactly how much ORS will charge licensees for the technology is difficult to say. Brockbank points out that specific use of the technology and the state of the market are factors determining ORS's licensing fees.

ORS, which has 25 employees in its East Bay Street offices, will be hiring sales and marketing representatives to sell and promote the technology. Some experts believe ORS's reputation could be instrumental in boosting the local biotech industry. "It is a leading Charleston-based biotech company and a leading national company in cryopreservation technologies," says Vladimir Mironov, director of the Medical University of South Carolina's Shared Tissue Engineering Laboratory.

Mironov and other tissue-engineering specialists hope to make Charleston the host of the third World Congress on Regenerative Medicine in 2007. Whether ORS's research will attract more biotechnology firms to the Lowcountry remains to be seen, says Brockbank. "We don't have a local venture funding community that focuses on biotechnology," he notes. "Traditionally, there's been little biotechnology in South Carolina, and we need a lot of help developing it."