Traveling to Mars, our closest planet and which may one day serve as another base for humanity, is very far away. Any practical mission there and back will take years. The health of the astronauts undertaking such a journey will be paramount, so researchers are working on ways to be able to create customized tissues in space. This ability would give astronauts a way to restore damaged or diseased tissues, an ability that would also certainly be nice to have down here on Earth.
At the University Hospital of Dresden Technical University, researchers working with OHB Systems AG and Blue Horizon, two firms involved in topics relating to life in space, have now developed a way to 3D print artificial bone and skin using human blood plasma. This is all part of the European Space Agency’s (ESA) efforts to provide the technical capabilities for traveling to Mars.
Blood plasma is a great bio-ink since it has just the right nutrients that cells like. It is very thin, so the researchers focused on developing a way to thicken it up. Using methylcellullose and alginate, they increased the viscosity of the substance so that it can be pushed through a 3D printer nozzle and then stay in place. The new material is so thick that it can be used to print upside down, an interesting property for a group working on doing this in outer space.
“A journey to Mars or other interplanetary destinations will involve several years in space,” said Tommaso Ghidini, head of ESA’s Structures, Mechanisms and Materials Division, overseeing the project. “The crew will run many risks, and returning home early will not be possible. Carrying enough medical supplies for all possible eventualities would be impossible in the limited space and mass of a spacecraft.”
“Instead, a 3D bioprinting capability will let them respond to medical emergencies as they arise. In the case of burns, for instance, brand new skin could be bioprinted instead of being grafted from elsewhere on the astronaut’s body, doing secondary damage that may not heal easily in the orbital environment.”
“Or in the case of bone fractures – rendered more likely by the weightlessness of space, coupled with the partial 0.38 Earth gravity of Mars – replacement bone could be inserted into injured areas. In all cases, the bioprinted material would originate with the astronaut themselves, so there would be no issue with transplant rejection.”
Here’s a video of artificial skin being printed:
And a video of 3D printing of an artificial bone: