Why astronauts are printing organs in space
Andrew Morgan has seen some of the worst things that can happen to the human body. As a battlefield doctor with the US Army, he’s treated young soldiers whose bodies had been torn and broken in explosions. “I’ve seen the loss of limbs and some devastating injuries as the result of blasts,” he says. Witnessing the slow healing and recovery process first-hand got Morgan thinking. What if new tissue or even entire organs could be simply printed off to replace injured body parts?
“The ability to transplant tissues made from the injured person’s own cells would be hugely beneficial,” he says.
That’s why Morgan conducted a series of unusual experiments over several months last year – in outer space. You see, Morgan is also a Nasa astronaut. In April 2020 he returned from a 272-day stay on the International Space Station (ISS). While he orbited 248 miles (400km) above the Earth’s surface, Morgan created living tissue, cell by cell, using a 3D printer and something called bio-ink.
“It’s not unlike changing a printer cartridge at home,” says Morgan of the equipment he used. “You put in the ink cartridge, allow the culture to develop and then remove the tissue cassette for analysis.”
So far, so simple. But there is a reason why Morgan and his fellow astronaut Christina Koch were doing these experiments while in orbit.
Experiments conducted on the International Space Station by Andrew Morgan
“When you’re 3D-printing a tissue culture on the ground, there’s a tendency for them to collapse in the presence of gravity,” he says. “The tissues require some sort of [temporary, organic] scaffold to hold everything in place, especially with cavities like the chambers of a heart. But you don’t have those effects in a micro-gravity environment, which is why these experiments have been so valuable.”
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The microgravity environment of the ISS was ideal for testing the Bio Fabrication Facility, which was launched into orbit in 2019 and is due for an upgrade in 2021. Developed by US companies Techshot and NScrypt, it is designed to print human cells into organ-shaped tissues. Initially, Morgan was using it to test prints of cardiac-like tissue of increasing thicknesses. Ultimately, however, the team behind the technology hopes to refine the equipment. So they can print entire human organs in space, which can be used in transplants.