Two high-tech companies have teamed up to develop the first 3D printer dedicated to manufacturing human tissue in the microgravity conditions of space. Techshot Inc., an International Space Station (ISS) U.S. National Laboratory commercial facility partner, and nScrypt, a manufacturer of the world’s most advanced industrial 3D bioprinters and electronics printers, developed the 3D BioFabrication Facility (BFF). BFF uses adult human cells (such as stem or pluripotent cells) and adult tissue-derived proteins as its bioink to create viable tissue. The facility recently launched to the station in July onboard the SpaceX CRS-18 cargo mission from Florida’s Cape Canaveral Air Force Station.
Though the prospect of manufacturing hearts and other organs via a 3D bioprinter is likely a decade away, the July launch will prove a significant milestone in that quest. The initial phase for BFF, which could last about two years, will involve creating test prints of cardiac-like tissue of increasing thickness. The next phase, where heart patches are manufactured in space and evaluated on the ground (under a microscope and perhaps in small animals such as rats), could last through approximately 2024.
Ultimately, the long-term success of BFF could help reduce the current shortage of donor organs and eliminate the requirement that someone must first die in order for another person to receive a new heart, other organ, or tissue.
Why Produce Human Tissue in Space?
Though researchers have had some success with 3D printing of bones and cartilage on Earth, the manufacturing of soft human tissue (such as blood vessels and muscle) has been difficult. On Earth, when attempting to print with soft, easily flowing biomaterials, tissues collapse under their own weight—resulting in little more than a puddle. But if these same materials are produced in the microgravity environment of space, the 3D-printed structures will maintain their shapes.
Once printed in space, the structures will be placed in a Techshot-developed cell-culturing system that strengthen them over time, to the point where they become viable, self-supporting tissues that will remain solid once back in Earth’s gravity.
Techshot President and CEO John Vellinger said the July launch of BFF is the culmination of more than four years of research and planning. “The concept of developing tissue or an organ in space with a 3D bioprinter has been with us for years,” he said. “From the technological and biological perspectives, making it real has been a painstaking process of experiments and testing. To see this coming together is an amazing thing for the team, as well as for all of medical science.”
For nScrypt CEO Ken Church, Ph.D., BFF’s long-term potential is very personal. Twenty-four years ago, Church’s daughter was born with one lung. She survived and today lives an active and full life despite her missing lung. But Church remembers thinking aloud: “I wish we could just make her another lung.”
Today, the prospect of making a lung is not so far-fetched. “Assembling a human lung or other organ is still years away, but it is no longer science fiction,” Church said. “BFF is the roadmap for getting there. And this BFF team knows how to follow that map. I have no doubt someday BFF will provide someone like my daughter with a second lung.”
BFF Success Could Lead to Numerous Medical Breakthroughs
Long-term success of BFF as a human organ manufacturing system presents several potential medical breakthroughs, including:
- Reducing the organ donor shortage (113,000 people are currently on transplant waiting lists).
- Creating patient-specific replacement tissues or patches (by creating tissues/patches from the patients’ very own stem and pluripotent cells).
- The possibility of transplant recipients receiving organs comprised of their own stem cells, thus reducing the likelihood of rejection and reducing long-term costs associated with a lifetime of anti-rejection drugs (and, perhaps, additional transplants).
- Eliminating the requirement that someone must first die in order for another person to receive a new heart or other organ.
One of the ISS National Laboratory’s original Implementation Partners, Techshot has been providing equipment and expertise for research in space by professional investigators since 1988. Its devices have flown onboard parabolic-flight aircraft, sub-orbital rockets, space shuttles, the Northrop Grumman Cygnus, the SpaceX Cargo Dragon, and the ISS. Besides BFF, other Techshot equipment is available for use onboard the station, including: the Bone Densitometer (an X-ray machine for mice), the Advanced Space Experiment Processor (an automated device with uses that include cell culturing, macromolecular crystal growth, C. elegans studies and bacteria research), and the Multi-use Variable-gravity Platforms (two identical payloads, each containing carousels capable of providing 0 – 2 g for research with plants, cells, Drosophila, C. elegans, bacteria, tissue chips, colloids and nearly whatever else researchers can imagine). For more about BFF and/or how Techshot can partner with you on your space research campaign, visit www.Techshot.space.