ESA-led project progresses with bioprinting skin and bone in space

Humans have long wanted to put a person on Mars, and today many steps towards achieving this decades-old goal are being taken. Things like housing, food, construction materials and medical treatments will be necessary in order for humans to exist on Mars, and researchers from space agencies and companies around the world are coming up with novel solutions to address these basic issues. NASA, for instance, recently awarded AI SpaceFactory first place in its 3D Printed Habitat Challenge for developing a 3D printed housing solution that could be viable on Mars or the Moon.

Even more recently, ESA revealed a project it has been working on with the University Hospital of Dresden Technical University (TUD), OHB System AG and Blue Horizon, which seeks to make medical treatments in space more feasible. Specifically, the project aims to 3D print human tissue, such as skin or bone, that could be implanted to treat astronauts in space.

Bioprinting in space skin and bone
Bioprinted skin sample

The innovative project recently achieved a milestone, with the successful production of its first bioprinted skin and bone samples. The skin sample was printed from a bioink made up of human blood plasma and plant-derived methylcellullose and alginate.

“Skin cells can be bioprinted using human blood plasma as a nutrient-rich ‘bio-ink’ – which would be easily accessible from the mission crewmembers,” explained Nieves Cubo from TUD. “However, plasma has a highly fluid consistency, making it difficult to work with in altered gravitational conditions. We therefore developed a modified recipe by adding methylcellullose and alginate to increase the viscosity of the substrate. Astronauts could obtain these substances from plants and algae respectively, a feasible solution for a self-contained space expedition.”

The bone sample for its part, was produced by printing human stem cells will a similar bioink composition which also included calcium phosphate bone cement, which is designed to be absorbed during the growth phase.

Though the samples themselves were bioprinted here on Earth, the scientists did take measures to ensure that the technique could be recreated in space. How? Well, they simply printed the skin and bone samples upside down.

Bioprinting in space skin and bone
Close-up of bioprinted bone sample

The ESA-led project is broader than the bioprinted samples, however, as its overall aim is to make 3D bioprinting “practical” for space. The project partners are investigating a number of things, including what kind of onboard facilities would be required, including equipment, surgical rooms, sterile environments; as well as how to produce increasingly complex tissues for transplants.

“A journey to Mars or other interplanetary destinations will involve several years in space,” said Tommaso Ghidini, head of ESA’s Structures, Mechanisms and Materials Division, who is overseeing the project. “The crew will run many risks, and returning home early will not be possible. Carrying enough medical supplies for all possible eventualities would be impossible in the limited space and mass of a spacecraft.”

By having access to sophisticated bioprinting capabilities in space, astronauts could address medical issues as needed. As Ghidini explains, new skin could be bioprinted to treat serious burns (instead of the riskier grafting process), and bone fractures could be treated with bioprinted replacement bone.

“In the case of bone fractures—rendered more likely by the weightlessness of space, coupled with the partial 0.38 Earth gravity of Mars—replacement bone could be inserted into injured areas,” he elaborated. “In all cases the bioprinted material would originate with the astronaut themselves, so there would be no issue with transplant rejection.”

Bioprinting in space skin and bone
Bioprinted bone sample

Like many space-bound research initiatives, the bioprinting team ultimately hopes that its work will also have implications here on Earth, helping to advance bioprinting technologies and adoption.

As Tommaso concluded: “It’s a typical pattern we see when promising terrestrial technologies are first harnessed for space, ranging from cameras to microprocessors. More needs to be done with less, to make things work in the challenging space environment, so various elements of the technology get optimized and miniaturized. Similarly, we hope that the work we do with 3D bioprinting will help accelerate its progress on Earth as well, hastening its widespread availability, bringing it to people even sooner.”

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