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An alternative to dry ice could revolutionise cell and tissue transportation worldwide

Scientists from the University of Nottingham have discovered an easy, cost-effective and safe method of sending cells and small living samples worldwide, which could revolutionise conventional practice.

Cultured cells are currently transported using dry ice - the solid form of carbon dioxide - which keeps them frozen at -80oC. However, dry ice shipping is expensive, voluminous and hazardous, so much so that many couriers refuse to handle it.

Also, if it evaporates before a shipment reaches its destination, cellular recovery is jeopardised, as the cells get crushed and the cryoprotectant needed for their storage at low temperatures, is toxic to cells at ambient temperatures.  

Dry ice is also damaging to the environment, with 5kg, (the quantity typically used in a consignment of frozen cells) turning into 23,000 litres of CO2 gas on evaporation.

An alternative, devised by experts in the School of Life Sciences at the University, uses a gel-based substance for transportation, which will eliminate these problems.

The “Transporter” is based on a gel of low-melting temperature agarose - the main constituent of many sea-weeds - in which cells are suspended and kept at room temperature. Using this method, excellent cell recovery can be achieved for over seven days in transit, and in some cases two or three times longer.

Sending cells in small volumes of Transporter (100 microlitres) in microfuge tubes at 5x106 cells/ml at ambient temperature is recommended by the research team for the best results. The new method has been successfully used on three occasions when cells were taken in hand-luggage from the UK to Hong Kong (five days in transit). The method has also been independently trialled by seven cell biologists using both mailing and courier routes.

Dr Sally Wheatley, the lead researcher, said: “Whilst dry ice has long provided a way of transporting cells across the globe, the cost and hazards have always been a major problem. We have developed a gel alternative, which is superior in many ways and will be of immediate benefit to all biomedical researchers because of its simplicity and cost-effectiveness. On medical grounds, it may now be possible to send, for exa�mple, stem cells quickly from one hospital to another over long distances. Its wider application is being investigated in veterinary medicine, microbiology and other biological fields.”