An extra-terrestrial solution to alleviating human organ shortage

bioprinting in space for organ transplant

Date: 11th January 2020

The race towards bioprinting 3D human transplantable organs is gathering momentum. Now this tech enters the space age as volumes of human heart cells have been printed aboard the International Space Station (ISS) U.S. National Laboratory.

36,528 organ transplants were performed in 2018, in the US alone, with a massive 113,000 transplant patients on the U.S. national waiting list as of July 2019. Simply put, demand for organs far outweighs supply.

One such tech hoping to bridge the gap, and which may ultimately offer advantages over donor organ transplantation, is 3D bioprinting of human organs. Through this, bioengineers aim to create biocompatible whole organs, organ components or patches which are readily designed, can be specified to the patient and printed rapidly for use.

One major obstacle to 3D printing, however, is creating a viable scaffold which offers both structural support and in some cases flexibility, for example the beating heart. Some progress has been made on this front and we reported last year a new 3D bioprinting technique called FRESH (Freeform Reversible Embedding of Suspended Hydrogels) that rebuilt the human heart, however, there are still many challenges yet to overcome.

Recently, however, Techshot Inc & NASA have entered the scene on this front, and in doing so potentially created the foundations for an entire new industry in space. Techshot, is a privately owned company, based in Greenville, US, and is a commercial operator of microgravity research and manufacturing equipment. The company was born out of passion for space and the dream that a middle school student, now President and CEO John Vellinge, had to launch an incubator capable of caring for growing chicken embryos in space. With the support of a popular chicken fast food restaurant and NASA, his dream was incredibly realised.

Now, many years later, Techshot has developed – in partnership with nScript – the 3D BioFabrication Facility (BFF), the first American 3D printer capable of manufacturing human tissue in the microgravity conditions of space.

So why space? It turns out that lack of gravity offers a big advantage in the bioprinting field. The problem of suitable scaffolding and support is circumvented by the low gravitational conditions. Here on Earth, printing with soft, easily flowing biomaterials, most often results in a puddle, as the materials collapse under their own weight. However, whilst in space, the 3D printed structure is maintained. Using specifically developed cell culturing cassettes, Techshot hope that the assembly of cells will be supported, and over time become self-supporting, thus maintaining viability once they enter back down into Earth’s gravity.

This week marked the end of the CRS-19 mission with the return of the SpaceX Cargo Dragon capsule containing three of these Techshot culturing cassettes. Each containing one tissue-like construct (manufactured in space) which will now be returned to the company for evaluation under standard gravitational conditions. With a penultimate bioprinting mission planned for March, it is hoped that the BBF will subsequently become commercially available to its Techshot customers. The ultimate mission here is to create space-printed organs & transform healthcare in way that few might have imagined. This might be yet another one small step for man, one giant leap …

For more information please read the press release from Techshot