WALLOPS ISLAND (VA), November 3, 2022 – Space: is it the final frontier, or could it be the new frontier of regenerative medicine? Bioprinting human tissues for implantation in patients to treat injury or disease would be game-changing. However, it is difficult to print soft tissues on Earth because gravity causes them to collapse under their own weight, and scaffolding is required to keep them upright. To remove this hurdle, researchers are boldly going to the International Space Station (ISS), where gravity is absent.
When Northrop Grumman’s 18th Commercial Resupply Services (NG-18) mission launches to the ISS, it will carry an upgraded version of Redwire Space’s BioFabrication Facility, or BFF, a 3D bioprinter capable of printing human tissue. The project, sponsored by the ISS National Laboratory, will pave the way for in-space bioprinting of tissues—and possibly even organs in the future—that could one day help patients back on Earth. The materials needed to make prints using the BFF will follow on a subsequent flight, and the first tissue the bioprinter will produce is a human meniscus, a protective piece of cartilage between the bones in the knee.
Long-term success of the BFF could lead to valuable medical breakthroughs for patients on Earth, said Rich Boling, a Redwire vice president. Printed tissues could not only be implanted in patients but also used as models for drug discovery, providing new avenues to test therapeutics. “Using the BFF, we can create true tissue-like structures in a better way and larger than you can terrestrially,” Boling said. “We can also use the BFF to print organoids, which could be used to test drug efficacy and reduce the need for laboratory animals.”
Exploring Bioprinting in Space
Using a combination of adult human cells and proteins to create human tissues, the BFF dispenses bioinks through four print heads, much like the methods for 3D printing with plastics here on Earth. The BFF was first launched to the ISS in 2019, and this upgraded version offers better temperature control to keep the bioinks at the ideal consistency for optimal printing. It also provides new camera views so that ground controllers can better control the prints.
Researchers on Earth have had some success in printing rigid human tissues like bone and cartilage, but soft tissues and blood vessels have proven to be much more difficult to print terrestrially. That’s due to a combination of Earth’s gravity and the low viscosity of the bioinks used, which require scaffolding for the printed tissues to hold their shape. However, in the absence of gravity, scaffolding is no longer needed for printed structures to keep their correct shape, and the prints can be cured into tissues that could one day be implanted into patients on Earth.
Redwire says the secret ingredient to their success is the BFF’s counterpart: the Advanced Space Experiment Processor (or ADSEP). This adjoining processing facility on the ISS is responsible for culturing and conditioning the cells once they are printed inside the BFF.
“The strengthening, or curing, process is what allows us to create these nice 3D structures that hold their shape,” said Molly Mulligan, Redwire’s business development director for in-space manufacturing and operations. “If you just brought back the print, it would collapse under Earth’s gravity, but once it’s cured, we can return it to Earth with no issue.”
Mulligan says that tissues are allowed to strengthen in the ADSEP for several weeks, enabling researchers to return solid tissue either alive or preserved for future analysis. “With this system, we can show that we can not only print but also culture these tissues, and that’s a real breakthrough.”
The BFF/ADSEP system also enables chemical and mechanical stimulation and potentially even vascularization of the tissues printed. The printed tissues can then be used to create models for drug discovery and to test novel therapies. Printed tissues could even eventually help address the organ shortage, which is the end goal for Boling and Redwire. “If we can speed up that process, or if this work discovers something to be able to mass produce organs, that would be ideal,” he said.
NG-18 is targeted for launch no earlier than November 6 at 5:50 a.m. EST. This mission will include more than 20 ISS National Lab-sponsored payloads. To learn more about all ISS National Lab-sponsored research on this mission, please visit our launch page.
Download a high-resolution photo for this release: NG-18 Research from Redwire Space
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About the International Space Station (ISS) National Laboratory: The International Space Station (ISS) is a one-of-a-kind laboratory that enables research and technology development not possible on Earth. As a public service enterprise, the ISS National Lab allows researchers to leverage this multiuser facility to improve life on Earth, mature space-based business models, advance science literacy in the future workforce, and expand a sustainable and scalable market in low Earth orbit. Through this orbiting national laboratory, research resources on the ISS are available to support non-NASA science, technology and education initiatives from U.S. government agencies, academic institutions, and the private sector. The Center for the Advancement of Science in Space (CASIS) manages the ISS National Lab, under Cooperative Agreement with NASA, facilitating access to its permanent microgravity research environment, a powerful vantage point in low Earth orbit, and the extreme and varied conditions of space. To learn more about the ISS National Lab, visit our website.
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