The advancement of rapid prototyping and 3D bioprinting has been unprecedented in the last couple of years; however, it is believed that the development of fully implantable organs cannot be 3D printed just yet. We need to wait a few more years in order to see full-blown implantation of 3D bioprinted organs, they said.
Till now, that’s what was widely believed. However, Techshot- contractors of NASA for several years have come up with a consortium that can potentially turn the rapid prototyping 3D bioprinting industry upside down. They have teamed up with specialists of bio-ink Bioficial Organs as well as developers of 3D bioprinters nScrypt. Together, they have not only printed 3D vascular and cardiac structures, but they have actually done so in an environment of zero gravity, that too using actual stem cells from of an adult human. They also believe that their technological revolution could boost the 3D bioprinting industry on earth.
For enthusiasts of the aerospace industry, Techshot is a widely known and familiar name. NASA, SpaceX, and other renowned partners have been clients of their technological services for more than twenty five years. Many of their technologies are used in the International Space Station (ISS). They are also well known for collaborating their specialization in aerospace with the medical sector. One of their successful projects in that sector is the Bone Densitometer- a zero gravity X-ray machine.
Another partner in this project, nScrypt, has worked on 3D printing and rapid prototyping systems and micro dispensing systems for many years. Their most well known project is the world’s first 3D bioprinter, which was built in 2003. Hence, as the pioneers of 3D bioprinting in the world, nScrypt’s expertise was quintessential in the collaboration.
Completing the partnership, Bioficial Organs also joined hands with the above two companies. The company had its origins at Cardiovascular Innovation Institute, Louisville, Kentucky, and they specialize in 3D printed organ innovations. The three companies together set up an extraordinary test on 14th June when they put to use their own prototype of a zero gravity 3D bioprinter. They took an aircraft from Zero Gravity Corporation- the only commercial firm providing weightless flights in the US, and headed out to the skies. Above the Gulf of Mexico at a height of thirty thousand feet, some sustained microgravity elements were produced by the aircraft. This allowed the researchers to test out the 3D bioprinter and subsequently produce the intricate heart structures.
According to John Vellinger, COO and Executive Vice President of Techshot, all the processes were completed as smoothly as possible. Vellinger was in fact, present in the aircraft as the tests were being carried out. The hardware functioned flawlessly, and the companies are hopeful to take the 3D bioprinting technology to the next stage. The goal, of course, remains the development of commercial 3D bioprinters that can be put to use for the manufacture of organs in space that can be transplanted. This would be beneficial for both patients back on earth as well as patients in space. This experiment could help the advancement of rapid prototyping and 3D bioprinting research and can also provide important medical assistance in case of medical emergencies during human space exploration missions that go on for a long duration.
Understandably, the project will take some time to take full flight as this was just a very promising initial test drive. The data that has been gathered can now be used to construct and design a more robust, autonomous, and smaller 3D bioprinter. The companies hope to launch into a commercial suborbital space capsule by Blue Origin as early as the beginning of 2017. If all is well and everything goes according to plan, the ISS would be equipped with its in house, custom 3D printer which can print complex and thick tissue structures by 2018.
Researchers revealed that much of the success of the 3D bioprinter depends on its ability to produce very thin layers of bio-ink. These layers, in order to be 3D printed, should be several times finer than the average human hair. The 3D bioprinter from nScrypt performed this task with flying colors. According to Kenneth Church, PhD, CEO and Chairman of nScrypt, some of the tips of their 3D printer for electronics can be as small as single human cells. However, the test conducted in space did not only print stem cell structures. Among other things, dielectric and electrically conductive materials were also 3D printed by the machine over the Gulf of Mexico. This will also prove important for organ implantation in the future. This is due to the fact that the implanted organs in space would have to have biosensors and pacing wires. If organs are manufactured on a standalone machine, then economy and fast service can be ensured.
As revealed by the CEO of Bioficial Organs Stuart Williams, a huge boost could be provided to the sector thanks to 3D bioprinting in space. This is due to the fact that weightlessness makes rapid prototyping and 3D printing much easier and faster. On the surface of the earth, the requirements of 3D bioprinting are thick bio-inks that can contain chemicals and other necessary materials to provide support to the finished structure. However, printing the tissues in outer space will enable us to use finer tips to print and less viscous bio-inks containing only biological materials required for a healthy organ. Space based bioprinters have the required potential to change the face of human healthcare as we know it. However, the finished structure did require developing a manufacturing process and proprietary formula that made sure that the stem cells remain viable and alive during transplant.
Now that the test has revealed astonishing results in favor of in-space 3D bioprinting of organs, the companies dream big for the future. The next step of Techshot is apparently rapid prototyping or 3D printing an entire beating human heart as soon as their 3D printer reaches the ISS. Their ultimate aim is to set up organ printing plants in outer space. The day isn’t too far when we can actually see 3D printed organs produced in outer space being transplanted into actual patients.
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