Custom made 3D printed organs in space may sound like science fiction, but it’s real and up at the International Space Station they are experimenting with how to print organs better than before. Printing organs is still a relatively new technology and we have good technology to print organs on Earth already. One problem with printing organic material is gravity, so a bunch of astronauts are flying over our heads right now trying to find out if printing organs in space can avoid problems of Earth-based organ printing.
The micro-gravity environment of the ISS was ideal for testing the Bio Fabrication Facility, which was launched into orbit in 2019 and is due for an upgrade in 2021. Developed by US companies Techshot and NScrypt, it is designed to print human cells into organ-shaped tissues. Initially Morgan was using it to test prints of cardiac-like tissue of increasing thicknesses. Ultimately, however, the team behind the technology hopes to refine the equipment so they can print entire human organs in space, which can be used in transplants.
Printing human organs is not quite as science fiction as it sounds. A number of bio-technology companies are working on different approaches, which aim to use a patient’s own cells make new tissue. In most cases they re-programme the cells by following a Nobel Prize-winning process developed a decade ago to turn them into stem cells, which are then theoretically capable of developing into any part of the human anatomy. Given the right nutrients and encouragement, these can then be induced into the cell type of choice. By suspending stem cells in a hydrogel that can be built into a scaffold to stop the growing structure collapsing in on itself, the desired cell type can then be printed layer by layer into living, functioning tissue.