3D bioprinting could let astronauts give medical care in space

There’s no 000 in space, and missions are getting longer as astronauts go farther afield and conduct more extensive projects. Often, they are spending months or even years on the International Space Station (ISS). When manned missions to Mars become a reality, the time spent a long way from the nearest hospital will increase. Workplace accidents are bound to happen, especially when you’re performing the complex tasks asked of astronauts. Room is tight on missions for logistical purposes, so it’s not as if space agencies can send surgeons and large hospital equipment up in orbit with astronauts. Being intrepid and ingenious explorers, astronauts are working on a solution to the problem. Last month, the European Space Agency (ESA) conducted a two-day workshop featuring bioprinting experts who shared their thoughts on the prospect of 3D bioprinting and regenerative medicine in space. In the same way 3D printers use common materials to print three-dimensional objects, 3D bioprinting uses “bio ink” based on human cells to regrow human tissue.

Hand chopped off in a nasty light-sabre accident? Just print yourself a new one. OK, so it might not be that simple, but technology exists and scaffolds can be printed to ensure proper regeneration, much like a cast helps set a broken arm. 3D bioprinting of functional organs might even be possible within the next decade.

The effects of weightlessness already put extra strain on astronauts’ bones, muscles, and ligaments. Increased radiation exposure in space can lead to higher risk of cancer. It may someday be feasible to print replacement parts for cancer-affected areas of the body.

“Compared to today’s low-Earth-orbiting crews, long distance missions to far away destinations will face very different challenges,” said Sandra Podhajsky of OHB System’s Life Sciences Group, which is managing the ESA project. “In the event of a medical emergency a rapid return home will not be feasible. Instead, patients will have to be treated on the spot. Thus we are evaluating the feasibility and added value of implementing different 3D printing technologies and bioprinted tissues into future exploration missions.”

Another unknown is how the different physics of space will affect the body’s acceptance of bioprinted parts.

“Another unknown is how bioprinted constructs will mature after printing and how their implementation in the human body will be affected by the altered conditions of space,” said Prof. Michael Gelinsky, Head of the Center for Translational Bone, Joint, and Soft Tissue Research at the University Hospital of Dresden Technical University. Gelinsky added that robot surgeons might be needed to perform more complex procedures the astronauts couldn’t do themselves.

While there are many unique challenges presented by prolonged space travel, they could produce just as many incredible feats of technology and human ingenuity that could prove useful up there and down here on Earth.