Bioprinted Hearts in Space: Belgium’s Quest to Unlock the Secrets of Cardiac Aging

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Five Belgian companies and research centers have embarked on a groundbreaking journey to investigate one of the world’s most pressing health concerns: cardiovascular disease. Known as the AstroCardia project, this initiative aims to unravel the mysteries of heart aging using 3D bioprinting, microfluidic chips, and outer space.

Belgian organizations Space Applications Services, the Belgian nuclear research center SCK CEN, QbD (Quality by Design) Group, BIO INX, and Antleron are collaborating to build what’s known as a heart-on-a-chip, a miniature heart model created using bioprinting and bioink made of stem cells. These models are already in development, and one is scheduled for deployment to the International Space Station (ISS) in 2025 for a minimum of six weeks. If successful, it will offer an alternative new way to study heart aging and how drugs can be used for treatment.

A four-step plan guides the AstroCardia project’s mission to expand the understanding of heart health. First, a mini heart is bioprinted on Earth using bioink and living cells. Next, researchers create an artificial blood system that nourishes the heart. This heart model will then be sent to space to speed up its aging process, leveraging the unique conditions only space can offer. Finally, remote tests will be conducted on the now-aged heart to learn more about its structure and test potential drugs.

The AstroCardia project. Image courtesy of Space Applications Services.

Why Space?

Researchers have noted that the heart changes as we age: it becomes stiffer and larger, and its pumping capacity deteriorates. These changes happen at a much accelerated rate in space due to factors like stress, microgravity, and radiation. According to Space Applications Services researcher Hilde Stenuit, this accelerated aging process in space offers an exceptional opportunity for research that isn’t available on Earth.

“Our heart changes as we age. It slowly gets bigger and stiffer, the arteries calcify, and the pumping power deteriorates. In space, factors such as stress, microgravity, and radiation cause those aging processes to occur 20 times faster. So, in space, we are speeding up time. And that gives us the unique opportunity to obtain research results that we simply cannot obtain here on Earth. The platform we will develop will allow research into the mechanisms that drive cardiac aging. This research will be fully automated and can be operated remotely,” says Stenuit, who has been leading core operations at the company for 24 years.

One of the most compelling parts of this project is the bioprinted heart-on-a-chip. This is where BIO INX’s expertise comes into play. Using a special bioink, researchers aim to create a functioning cardiac organoid on a microfluidic chip. Smaller than a few square millimeters, this chip will be embedded with heart muscle cells that eventually organize into a working miniature heart.

3D bioprinting heart-on-a-chip models. Image courtesy of Space Applications Services.

Bioprinting a living organ requires a material that holds the stem cells together and allows them to thrive. BIO INX has developed this groundbreaking bioink that acts as the “glue” that seamlessly binds the stem cell “building blocks.”

CEO and Co-founder Jasper Van Hoorick says: “Compare it to bricklaying a wall. The stem cells are the bricks, the bioink, the mortar. Bioink is a kind of gel, which makes cells printable and in which they can survive during and after printing.”

A spin-off from Ghent University, Belgian startup BIO INX, has been working on a portfolio of bioinks for bioprinting, and it should be possible to print simple organs and tissue with their cells within ten years, anticipates Van Hoorick. Formerly known as Xpect-INX, the company initially collaborated with UpNano in 2021 to launch Hydrobio INX U200, a groundbreaking bio-ink that enabled exact 3D-printed structures embedded with live cells. Continuing its innovation, BIO INX recently developed another resin, Hydrotech INX N200, tailored explicitly for 3D printing organs-on-chips. This new bioink results from a partnership with Nanoscribe and is compatible with the brand’s specialized 3D printing platforms.

Final frontier

Backed by Flemish innovation agency VLAIO through an ICON intercluster project, which fosters interdisciplinary research and collaboration between MEDVIA, a healthcare innovation cluster, and Flanders Space, a hub for the Flemish space sector.

Bolstered by such a diverse group of supporters, the project is now entering its next critical phase, focusing on the technology that will enable these ambitious experiments. According to the researchers, the heart-on-a-chip will be surrounded by an artificial circulatory system developed in collaboration with Antleron, a biotech subsidiary of the QbD Group. This advanced system will nourish the heart with oxygen, stimuli, and nutrients, creating conditions that mimic the human cardiovascular system. Once launched into space, these heart-on-a-chip models will undergo real-time monitoring. After their return to Earth, they will be subject to detailed analyses. The primary objective is to determine whether exposure to space can serve as a valid scientific model for studying cardiac aging.

Paving the way for new research in personalized medicine, the implications of the AstroCardia Project are groundbreaking. Radiobiology expert at SCK CEN, Kevin Tabury, states: “The miniature heart, which is barely a chia seed’s size, faithfully mimics its human counterpart. The innovative technique would make it possible to better investigate cardiovascular diseases and test out some potential medicines. The biggest advantage is that we can personalize them by using stem cells from the patient themselves. As such, we can grow a miniature version of the patient’s heart. This would represent a great leap forward in personalized medicine. We are working towards that together!”

AstroCardia Mission Controle Centre. Image courtesy of Space Applications Services.

With its unique approach to bioprinting and space technology, the initiative promises to deliver insights that could not only help understand heart aging better but also find cures for one of the world’s most common causes of death—cardiovascular diseases. However, this venture is not just about scientific curiosity and diving into the health challenges many people face today; it is also a starting point for figuring out how to keep astronauts healthy as they go on longer space missions in the years ahead.

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