A 3D bioprinter owned by an American company has successfully printed a large volume of human heart cells aboard the International Space Station (ISS) U.S. National Laboratory.
The company, Techshot, is a commercial operator of microgravity research and manufacturing equipment. Techshot said it developed the 3D BioFabrication Facility (BFF) with nScrypt, an Orlando, Fla.-based manufacturer of industrial 3D bioprinters and electronics printers. The tissue-like constructs returned to Earth last week inside a SpaceX capsule, according to Techshot.
Why do 3D bioprinting in space? Earthbound researchers have had some success with 3D printing bones and cartilage, but the manufacturing of soft human tissue, such as blood vessels and muscle, has been difficult. That’s because bioinks require scaffolding materials or thickening agents to resist the destructive pull of gravity, according to Greenville, Ind.-based Techshot. Those materials weigh down the soft, easily flowing biomaterials, causing the 3D-printed tissues to collapse under their own weight, the company said. When these same materials are used in the microgravity environment of space, the 3D-printed structures may maintain their shapes.
The BFF printed inside a cell-culturing cassette that Techshot developed to strengthen the assemblage of cells over time, to the point where they should become a viable, self-supporting tissue-like structure expected to remain solid once back in Earth’s gravity, according to the company. The test prints in space were large by Earth bioprinting standards, each measuring 30 mm long by 20 mm wide by 12.6 mm high.
Though the prospect of manufacturing human hearts and other organs via a 3D bioprinter in space is likely a decade away, it is hoped that the long-term success of BFF could lead to a reduction in the shortage of donor organs.
“Our BFF has the potential to transform human healthcare in ways not previously possible,” said Techshot president & CEO John Vellinger in a news release. “We’re laying the foundation for an entire industry in space.”
Following the next round of test prints in March, Techshot expects to begin marketing BFF ready to industrial and institutional life science customers.