It’s been almost a year and a half since the first 3D printer was sent into space and installed aboard the International Space Station (ISS) and only about a month since the first commercial 3D printer was deployed on the ISS. It’s about time that somebody shakes things up, isn’t it?
Engineering firm and regular NASA contractor Techshot, Inc. has partnered with bioprinter manufacturer nScrypt, Inc. to develop the first bioprinter capable of 3D printing in microgravity, with the goal of bioprinting adult human stem cells in orbit. The two companies are already making significant progress toward this lofty goal by successfully demonstrating the ability to 3D print cardiac and vascular structures in zero gravity with adult human stem cells.
The above vascular structure was bioprinted aboard a microgravity flight. (Image courtesy of Techshot.)
Techshot and nScrypt performed the experiment in an aircraft flown by Zero Gravity Corporation, which specializes in conducting parabolic flights that create several seconds of microgravity conditions. During a flight 30,000 feet over the Gulf of Mexico, the partners tested the capabilities of an nScrypt bioprinter to create cardiac and vascular structures made from stem cells, as showcased in the video below:
Due to nScrypt’s expertise in electronics printing, the firm’s bioprinters are capable of fabricating very thin lines. nScrypt Chairman and CEO Kenneth Church elaborated, “It’s like drawing with a fine-point pen rather than a crayon. Some of the tips on our 3D electronics printers are nearly as small as a single human cell.”
The zero gravity bioprinter aboard the Zero Gravity Corporation aircraft. (Image courtesy of Techshot.)
Techshot Executive Vice President and COO John Vellinger, one of the operators of the printer during the microgravity flight, said of the experiment’s results, “The hardware worked flawlessly. We’re eager to take the technology to the next level.”
The bioink used in the experiment, invented by Bioficial Organs, has been engineered to keep adult human stem cells alive for transplantation. Bioficial Organs President and CEO Stuart Williams, explained that bioprinting in a low-gravity environment has certain benefits to performing the process on Earth.
“On Earth, 3D bioprinting requires the use of thick bioinks that can contain chemicals and other materials necessary to provide structural support,” Williams said. “But printing tissues in space allows us to use finer-print tips and lower viscosity bioinks that contain only the biological materials needed to create a healthy organ. A space-based bioprinter has the potential to be a major game changer for human health care.”
Some, like the Mayo Clinic’s Dr. Abba Zubair, believe that stem cells may even grow more quickly in space, as they are unhindered by Earth’s gravity. Dr. Zubair plans to send a batch of stem cells to the ISS to see how quickly they can grow.
The tech partners performing the bioprinting experiment during a parabolic flight. (Image courtesy of Techshot.)
The short-term goal of the experiment was to gather the data necessary to construct a smaller and stronger bioprinter for use in microgravity, which the partners hope will print autonomously aboard a commercial Blue Origin suborbital space capsule in January 2017. After that, they aim to send a version of the platform to the ISS in 2018, where it will 3D print thicker, more complex tissues.
In addition to bioprinting, the prototype machine was also able to 3D print electrically conductive and insulative material during the test flight. By the time the printer reaches the ISS, the team believes it may be able to 3D print tissues with integrated pacing wires and biosensors. If possible, they are intent on making their first print aboard the ISS a beating human heart patch.
Beyond that, the project’s team members see the technology one day enabling humans to survive in space for longer periods of time. Talk about long-term planning! Bioprinting organs are still in their infancy, with only one company, 3D Bioprinting Solutions, reporting the successful implantation of a 3D-printed thyroid gland and many others still working to create viable complex tissues.
Harvard researchers have previously been able to 3D print a patch of beating heart cells, and 3D Bioprinting Solutions aims to print an entire kidney by 2018, so printing organs in space may actually be possible before we are able to send humans to Mars.