PanTHERA CryoSolutions sat down with Dr. Robert Ben, Chief Scientific Officer of PanTHERA CryoSolutions to hear his thoughts on cryopreservation and education.
Professor Ben obtained his undergraduate degree in Biochemistry from Laurentian University (Sudbury, ON) in 1990. He undertook graduate studies in synthetic organic chemistry at the University of Ottawa between and obtained his PhD in 1994. After a postdoctoral position at the University of Toronto from 1994-1996 he accepted a Research Associate position at the Steacie Institute of Molecular Sciences (SIMS) at the National Research Council of Canada in Ottawa. In 1998, he started his independent research career as an Assistant Professor in the Department of Chemistry at the State University of New York (SUNY) at Binghamton. During the summer of 2003, he joined the Chemistry Department at the University of Ottawa with a Canada Research Chair in Medicinal Chemistry. In 2013, he became Director for the Biopharmaceutical Science (BPS) and Biomedical Science (BMS) programs at the University of Ottawa and was promoted to Full Professor in 2015. Professor Ben’s research interests are interdisciplinary in nature (organic synthesis, bioorganic chemistry, carbohydrates, peptides, cell biology) with the main focus being the rational design and synthesis of new cryoprotectants that function by inhibiting ice recrystallization during cryopreservation or vitrification. These cryoprotectants are used to cryopreserve progenitor cells and tissues for emerging cellular therapies.
How do you explain your work to people who don’t work in your field?
I would say that we freeze things all the time in our daily lives. We put meat in the freezer and what we don’t know is that when we take something out of the freezer, there is a significant amount of cellular damage. So it starts at the cellular level in the tissues. And cryopreservation is challenging because we are good at freezing but not so good at getting great stuff back. This is because we don’t do anything to control ice growth when we freeze something, it is similar to freezer burn, and everyone can relate to that. There is a difference between frozen and fresh meat, for example. And when we cook frozen meat, it does not taste as good as when it is fresh because the uncontrolled ice crystal growth has changed the cellular and tissue structures. That is the main problem. And it is the same thing when we look at preserving stem cells or human tissues. We do a terrible job at it because, in all of the technologies and solutions we use during the cryopreservation process, none do anything about the ice growth in a frozen sample. And now PanTHERA has been working on commercializing the technology for a small molecule we had designed over the years that controls ice growth. And this is what the research is about because the small molecule allows a superior product when we thaw what was frozen.
What do you enjoy the most working at PanTHERA?
I love the people on the team. They are amazing. That goes without saying because everything you do is about the team. Whether it is academic research or working in the lab, it is all about the team. And when you have a highly functional, collaborative team, you have people with the same mindset and people who believe in the product and technology. Initially, we went to great lengths to build the team, everyone who comes on board brings with them their strengths and weaknesses, but we work well collaboratively together. Where there are weaknesses of one member, it is compensated by the strengths of another. It is quite a thrill to see how this kind of primary fundamental research and academic laboratory pioneered this technology and is working to commercialize it with a fantastic team of people involved.
If you could use one word to summarise your work, what word would that be and why?
If I could use one word to summarise my work, I would use a hyphenated word. Game-changing. This technology is game-changing at every level. It will revolutionize the cryopreservation industry, which is what the company is doing, and at all levels, the technology has been recognized by experts in cryobiology. As a game-changing technology, it is a fundamental shift in how people have been trying to improve the post-thaw quality of cells, tissues etc. And the technologies we use in the cryopreservation industry today have been essentially 1950s technology.
There have been minor improvements, but it is ultimately dated technology. Cryoprotective agents (CPAs) such as glycerol and dimethyl sulfoxide (DMSO) are a 1950s technology. And so, this Ice Recrystallisation Inhibitors (IRIs) technology or the PanTHERA IP Platform is very novel, which is why it is game-changing. It changes the game, nationally and internationally. And we can already see this happening in scientific literature. The number of peer-reviewed publications and reports being published, all based on and talking about ice recrystallization inhibitors, has increased dramatically in the last decade. And that is because of the work we have done. So yes, the word will be game-changing because our work inspired others to look at the existing technology differently and find solutions to better the cryopreservation process.
Could you share with us one of the biggest challenges in your life so far?
There is a long list, but if I were to choose one, you know, personally and professionally – one of the biggest hurdles has been education. And by that, I mean even educating experts in the field about the problems involved with cryopreservation. Some people involved in cell therapies and emerging technologies used to treat debilitating conditions are unsure of the process. And some experts need to recognize that they have been using technology from the 1950s.
And often, you sit down with experts in those areas and then educate them. This has two sides because one side will go, ” Oh, you are right. We need to better the technology concerning cryopreservation.” Then you have the other side, who doesn’t understand what was discovered back in the 60s and cannot comprehend what PanTHERA is trying to achieve. And I am not saying it about a layperson because we don’t expect the layperson to understand issues with cryopreservation. And so yes, education is essential for people to understand the problems and state of the present technologies surrounding cryopreservation. So far, we have done an outstanding job at helping others understand the problem; some know and have been sounding the alarm. But, there is still a long way to go in educating fellow scientists about cryopreservation.
This conversation has been edited for brevity and clarity.
About PanTHERA CryoSolutions
PanTHERA CryoSolutions is a Canadian corporation that designs and manufactures cryopreservation solutions for cells, tissues and organs for research and clinical markets. Our patented ice recrystallization inhibitor (IRI) technology exceeds other products by providing superior cryopreservation and increasing post-thaw cell recovery and function for our customers. The technology enables the use of significantly less costly storage and transportation systems limiting the need for liquid nitrogen use for some cell therapy applications