Okay, it’s not exactly beating yet, but the latest in heart health is pretty literally out of this world. In a successful test flight earlier this week, and a world first, cardiac and vascular structures were 3D printed in zero gravity using adult human stem cells. Just let that sink in for a minute.
High above the Gulf of Mexico on June 14th — 30,000 feet above, to be exact — a Zero Gravity Corp. (ZERO-G) aircraft took up members from three high-tech companies involved in a remarkable partnership. NASA contractor Techshot Inc., industrial 3D bioprinter and electronics printer manufacturer nScrypt Inc., and bioink developer Bioficial Organs Inc. went up (and up and up) in the ZERO-G craft. These flights are often taken for entertainment/tourism purposes — ZERO-G is the only FAA-approved weightless flight provider in the US for several sectors, including space tourism and the government — but this trip up had a much more scientific purpose in mind for the sustained microgravity conditions possible for several seconds at a time.
A “space hardened 3D bioprinter,” as Techshot describes the machine in their latest press release, went up with the team this week, showcasing in an incredible way each company’s unique offerings and the results of their combined efforts to actually bioprint human tissues and, eventually, organs in orbit.
Bioficial Organs’ President and CEO, Stuart Williams, PhD, was on board the flight. His company’s proprietary bioink formulation is notable for keeping adult human stem cells alive and viable for organ transplantation, which, as we’ve seen, is a tricky business due to the exacting conditions necessary for sustaining living cells.
“On earth, 3D bioprinting requires the use of thick bioinks that can contain chemicals and other materials necessary to provide structural support. But printing tissues in space allows us to use finer print tips and lower viscosity bioinks that contain only the biological materials needed to create a healthy organ,” Williams remarked. “A space-based bioprinter has the potential to be a major game changer for human healthcare.”
The partnership, led by Techshot, will be putting data collected from this test flight to use to continue work on their goals of creating viable, transplantable human organs. The ultimate goals for these bioprinted organs cover, of course, patients here on Earth — but also extend into the farther reaches of the future when longer-term space travel (and even off-planet colonization) may be possible. John Vellinger, Executive Vice President and COO of Techshot, is certainly optimistic about the results from this flight and what that will mean for the future. He should know; he was on the flight, assisting in the 3D printer’s zero-G operation.
“The hardware worked flawlessly. We’re eager to take the technology to the next level,” Vellinger said of the experience.
Vellinger’s next aspiration for the technology is to take what they’ve learned and incorporate it into the next generation of the bioprinter, which is set to be more robust and have a smaller footprint. He also intends for that bioprinter to launch aboard a commercial Blue Origin suborbital space capsule, where it would operate autonomously, next January — ahead of a 2018 version for the International Space Station. The bioprinter planned for the ISS is set to print “thicker, more complex tissues,” as Techshot notes. The first expected test for the ISS bioprinter is a beating human heart patch, as this machine is planned to build in pacing wires and biosensors to tissues.
The layers and complexities required in bioprinting require the utmost concern in materials and in the equipment used to deposit them. Bioficial Organs, a spinoff from the Cardiovascular Innovation Institute, has been working with 3D technologies since the mid-1990s, seeking to offer solutions to diseases through heart, liver, pancreas, and hand bioprinting. As Williams had noted of the advantage of utilizing fine print tips in space, the team at nScrypt provided an ideal solution with their extremely fine tips on their 3D bioprinters — and they’ve clearly been doing well recently with their technology even taking home awards.
“It’s like drawing with a fine-point pen rather than a crayon. Some of the tips on our 3D electronics printers are nearly as small as a single human cell,” explained nScrypt Chairman and CEO Kenneth Church, PhD.
The 3D electronics printing capabilities were also relevant on the June 14th test, as Techshot noted that the prototype 3D printer additionally printed out “electrically conductive and dielectric (insulative) material.” These capabilities will surely come in handy for the ISS, where biosensors and other advanced offerings are planned.
3D printing in space is a huge area of focus, as is, closer to Earth, bioprinting. These two technologies coming together pose incredible opportunities and potential for use both in deep space and here on terra firma. With 3D printers being put to use to plan surgeries, create patient-specific implants, and in the ongoing development of bioprinting, as well as higher-flung developments onboard the ISS, as well as potentially on the moon, on Mars, and even on comets, the bringing together of these fields showcases some of the best of humanity — and technology. Thoughts on this latest mindboggling 3D printing news? Let’s talk about it over in the Bioprinting in Space forum at 3DPB.com.[Images: Rich Boling, Techshot Print Team]