NASA Wants to 3D Print Human Hearts in Space
Scientists are investigating a possible way of cutting the organ donor waiting list – by growing organs in space. The researchers plan to attempt to 3D-print organs in space, where they hope the lack of gravity will allow them to overcome some of the problems encountered trying to make them on Earth.
US science and technology startup Tech shot has been working with NASA to develop a biological 3D printer that it plans to sendto the International Space Station in May. If it is found to work, the company says it will focus on developing cardiac tissue.
Why space is the place to go
The plan is to print organs using the recipient’s stem cells, which should greatly reduce the risk of their body rejecting the organ and in theory, should mean they don’t need to be on immunosuppressant drugs for the rest of their lives.
Several doctors have tried to 3D print organs in labs, using a suspension of living cells instead of the plastic used in ordinary 3D printing. But complex organs tend to collapse under their own weight as they are being made. Scientists have tried using a support structure to stop this, but getting it out once the organ is complete is problematic.
Rich Boling, Techshot’s vice-president of corporate advancement, believes the weightlessness experienced inside the International Space Station would allow these problems to be overcome – though it is not clear how, without gravity, the printing could work in the first place.
In the UK, around 6,000 people are waiting for an organ transplant. Around 400 people die on the waiting list every year.
The device Techshot and NASA have developed goes by the name of the BioFabrication Facility and is about the size of a microwave oven. The plan is to spend a year or so putting the machine through its paces to check that it is functioning as designed, before test printing starts in earnest.
“After our test protocols have been completed, we’ll open the programme up to outside researchers who want to use our device,” Boling said.
“Then we’ll bring it back to earth and make whatever modifications may be needed to optimise it based on what we’ve learned during the test phase; then we’ll send it back up with the goal of manufacturing increasingly complex tissues.”
Those waiting for a heart shouldn’t get excited yet though. Should the tests work, tissue production for patients is a long way off, with treatment licensing for the organs potentially taking a decade.
Cost is also a consideration. It costs $62 million (about £48,000) to launch the cheaper of the two rockets produced by Elon Musk’s company SpaceX, which aims to reduce the cost of space travel. Boling told the BBC that this should be outweighed by the savings resulting from patients not needing anti-rejection drugs, but this seems unlikely: in the UK, the first year of care after a kidney transplant costs around £17,000, with every subsequent year costing £5,000.
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