While students and others are learning to design and 3-D print inventions to help the disabled (see “Taking on the Tank”), a microgravity research company is experimenting with 3-D printing transplantable human organs. If that isn’t far-out enough, consider this: The 3-D printing has to happen in space.
Techshot Inc. is a privately owned American company. It sent its 3-D bioprinter to the International Space Station last summer. There, the bioprinter produced a large volume of human heart cells strung together into three-dimensional structures. The tissue-like constructs will soon return to Earth inside a SpaceX capsule.
The experiment was a success—and a scientific breakthrough. Past attempts at 3-D printing of human soft tissues down below had failed. Why? Because of gravity. Some hard-tissue printed samples worked—like rigid bone and semi-rigid cartilage. But living soft-tissue organs need to flex, pulse, contract, expand, and move. Many—hearts, blood vessels, lungs, stomachs, intestines—must take the shape of containers. Space inside for blood, air, or food is essential to life-giving function. While the marvelously designed body can grow and form whole organs inside a mother’s womb, printed soft tissues collapsed in the lab. They could not hold up under their own weight.
Techshot had an idea. Maybe the answer was to exit the reach of that trouble-making force of gravity! Onboard the ISS, Techshot Inc. set up its 3-D BioFabrication Facility (or BFF). The bio-ink used in the system contained adult human cells in types for heart muscles, nerves, and blood vessels. In one trial, BFF printed a structure of heart cells measuring 30 millimeters by 20 millimeters. (That’s about 1.25 inches by 0.75 inches. It doesn’t sound large, but in the world of creating new living tissues, it is!)
Way above the Earth, without the pull of gravity, the 3-D-printed structures maintained their shapes. After a few weeks’ time to strengthen and bind together, the experimental structures are expected hold up even when brought back into Earth’s gravity.
Techshot President and CEO John Vellinger celebrated the victory. He says, “Our BFF has the potential to transform human healthcare in ways not previously possible. We’re laying the foundation for an entire industry in space.”
More tests are planned. Manufacturing human hearts and other organs with space printers is likely at least a decade away. But the hope is that the long-term success of BFF could wipe out long organ transplant waitlists. Another plus: Techshot says organs in the future will use the recipient’s own cells in the bio-ink. That would prevent organ rejection—a constant issue with transplants from donors today.