AMS Spring 2023

Techshot’s Bioprinter Successfully Fabricates Human Menisci in Space

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Current Bioprinting in space could become a pathway that guides future decisions for biofabrication on Earth as well as in orbit. Astronauts have already used two bioprinters on the International Space Station (ISS), experimenting with human bone tissue and even heart tissue. Interest in creating these machines arose as Earth’s gravity was making printing functional organ-like structures quite challenging, making the space environment a feasible alternative. Techshot, a commercial space company, chose to develop a BioFabrication Facility (BFF) that has been mounted inside the ISS U.S. National Laboratory and is being used by astronauts on board since last summer. This week the company announced that the space-based 3D bioprinter was used to successfully manufacture human knee cartilage test prints in space.

Techshot’s BFF, which aims to print organ-like tissues that could one day lead to 3D printing human organs in space for transplants, was used to successfully manufacture test prints of a partial human meniscus aboard the ISS last month. The meniscus pattern was manufactured for the company’s customer: the 4D Bioprinting, Biofabrication, and Biomanufacturing (4D Bio3) program, which is based at the Uniformed Services University of the Health Sciences (USU). The program is a collaboration between the university and The Geneva Foundation, a non-profit organization that advances military medical research.

BioFabrication Facility Patch (Image: Techshot)

Manufacturing human tissue in the microgravity conditions of space could ultimately aid in the race to manufacture hearts and other organs using a 3D bioprinter. Although the actual fabrication of functional organs that could finally replace the shortage of donor organs to help patients in need of a transplant could be a decade away – if not more – the team at Techshot was optimistic around this project since research in space might illuminate a lot of the work done on Earth.

In the last six months, astronauts, like NASA’s flight engineer Christina Koch, have tested the ability of the BFF to print cells. Using adult human cells (such as stem or pluripotent cells) and adult tissue-derived proteins as its bioink, the BFF is able to create viable tissue.

Astronaut Jessica Meir is using the BFF at the International Space Station (Image: Techshot)

According to the ISS U.S. National Lab, although researchers have had some success with 3D printing of bones and cartilage on Earth, the manufacturing of soft human tissue (such as blood vessels and muscle) has been difficult. What they claim occurs is that, on Earth, when attempting to print with soft, easily flowing biomaterials, tissues collapse under their own weight, resulting in little more than a puddle; but if these same materials are produced in the microgravity environment of space, the 3D printed structures will keep their shapes.

A meniscus, which is a crescent-shaped disc of soft cartilage that sits between the femur and the tibia, acts as a significant cushion or shock absorber, yet when the meniscus tears, the cushioning effect functions poorly, leading to arthritis and knee pain. Meniscal injuries are one of the most commonly treated orthopedic injuries and have a much higher incidence in military service members and sports players.

Early in March, Techshot sent equipment and samples supporting plant, heart and cartilage research for three of its customers to the ISS on SpaceX mission CRS-20. Astronauts on-board the station used the BFF to manufacture human knee menisci as a test of the materials and the processes required to print a meniscus in space. According to Techshot, the first experiment for 4D Bio3 aboard the ISS U.S. National Laboratory served as a test of the materials and the processes required to print a meniscus in space. Astronaut Andrew Morgan, a medical doctor and graduate of USU loaded biomaterials into BFF, while Techshot engineers uploaded a customer-provided design file to the printer from the company’s Payload Operations Control Center (POCC) located in Greenville, Indiana, from which the devices in space are controlled. The success of the print was evaluated via real-time video from inside the unit.

“Some of our criteria for mission success, such as the ability to work with customer-specified print materials and customer-supplied design files, were met before we even launched back on March 6,” said Techshot Senior Scientist Carlos Chang. “But commanding BFF to print from here at Techshot, and watching it all literally come together in real-time, provided the confirmation we needed that we’re on the right track.”

Founded more than 30 years ago, Techshot operates its own commercial research equipment in space and serves as the manager of NASA-owned ISS payloads – such as the Advanced Plant Habitat and two materials-science research furnaces. The company provides its catalog of equipment and services for a fee to those with their own independent research programs – serving as a one-stop resource for organizations seeking access to space. And launched to the station in July 2019 aboard SpaceX CRS-18, the BFF has been tested since. Techshot has even suggested that biomaterials for a second meniscus print, which will be returned to Earth for more extensive testing, will launch on a later SpaceX mission.

As astronauts stationed at the ISS U.S. National Lab continue to advance work with Techshot’s 3D bioprinter and microgravity research, we can expect to hear more about the cutting edge science that is being done that aims to improve patient care. The technology offers a unique opportunity to support bioprinting structures and construct tissues, providing an ideal scenario that will enable remarkable changes to move forth the medicine of the future.

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