Forward-looking: Future long distance space travel to planets such as Mars comes with a slew of dangers, including a lack of treatment available to astronauts who experience serious injuries. But those who suffer bad burns or bone fractures could be aided by 3D printers that can produce tissue grown from their own cells.
Scientists from the University Hospital of Dresden Technical University have developed the first bioprinted skin and bone samples designed for use in space, where the human body is more susceptible to injuries and doesn’t heal as quickly as it does on earth.
"In the case of burns, for instance, brand new skin could be bioprinted instead of being grafted from elsewhere on the astronaut's body, doing secondary damage that may not heal easily in the orbital environment," said Tommaso Ghidini, head of the division at the European Space Agency (ESA) that oversees the project, in a statement.
Using 3D printers in space to produce human tissue brings a couple of problems: finding the required bio-inks and the difficulty when working with 3D printers in zero gravity.
To address these issues, the skin cells can be bioprinted using the astronauts own plasma from their blood, while stem cells can be used for the bone.
"Skin cells can be bioprinted using human blood plasma as a nutrient-rich 'bio-ink' – which would be easily accessible from the mission crew members," says Nieves Cubo, a bioprinting specialist at the university. "Producing the bone sample involved printing human stem cells with a similar bio-ink composition, with the addition of a calcium phosphate bone cement as a structure-supporting material, which is subsequently absorbed during the growth phase."
As for working in space, the researchers created a 3D printing method that works upside down and thickened the human blood with plant material so it can be used in altered gravity.
The ESA hopes the project will culminate in the printing of entire internal organs. Here on earth, we’ve already seen the world’s first 3D-printed breathing organ and a 3D-printed cornea, the latter of which uses stem cells and algae.
Check out the two time-lapse videos below of the bioprinted skin and bone being created.