Next Stop Mars: Applying bioprinting and regenerative medicine in Space
3D bioprinting is a highly promising technique in the field of medicine. The technology is being used to in a range of 3D cell culture applications, from research projects developing bioprinted 3D tumor models, which better mimic the actual tumor environment, to projects which aim to create realistic 3D tissue constructs with the potential to implant them to the human body in future clinical applications. Whilst the concept of printing body parts here on Earth may seem far-fetched enough to some, and in reality is still a while away, there are some researchers taking this concept to the next level, and considering the clinical applications of bioprinting in space.
A Study on the Survivability and Adaptation of Humans to Long-Duration Exploratory Missions (HUMEX) discusses the potential health-related issues including survivability and adaptation of astronauts undertaking long-duration missions. The study highlights the effects of cosmic radiation, reduced gravity on Moon and Mars, gravity changes during launch, and related psychological health issues. Let’s imagine a one hundred and eighty days stay on the Moon with a crew size of four. Getting medical attention to the traveling crew is nearly impossible. Communication of medical instructions via IT and telecommunications technology (telemedicine), will be difficult due to the communication delay on deep space missions. In the event of a medical emergency, a rapid return home will not be feasible. Therefore, the patients will have to be treated on the spot. To find a solution for this issue, scientists are evaluating the feasibility of technologies such as 3D bioprinting in future exploration missions.
Doing 3D bioprinting in space, like on Earth, requires careful control of the extrusion process and control of the machine’s operating temperatures. However, the microgravity environment lacks the convection we are accustomed to here on Earth. Hence, we have to develop specific printing systems and bioinks which are able to perform in a microgravity environment.
To alleviate the issues caused by the specific space environment, a strategic partnership has been developed between the bioprinter company Allevi and Made in Space. The strategic alliance has designed a printer, which is capable of printing biomaterials in microgravity. The project aims to place this machine aboard the International Space Station (ISS), and could be considered the first step toward those scenes of sci-fi medicine.
There is also a project lead by the European Space Agency (ESA), which intends to advance 3D bioprinting to the level where it becomes possible to 3D print skin, bones and organs.
The human organ has a complex network of cells, tissues, nerves, and structures. They need to be positioned with the highest precision so that the organ functions properly. Currently, we do not have the technology to precisely blueprint these complex networks using different materials, cell types and bio-inks in the same final structure. Companies like Organovo are working hard to meet this challenge.
Although the printer technology and printing processes will be key to bioprinting in space, the biggest hurdle may still be the materials. Although the printer technology and printing processes will be key in developing bioprinting technology for space travel, another hurdle will still be the materials. In the future, if a medical emergency arises on a space mission where bioprinting could provide an immediate solution, access to reproducible bioinks with high biocompatibility and consistent printability could be vital.
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