Space could be the best place to produce 3D printed organs.
Organ transplants are in high demand around the world and unfortunately, there’s a global shortage. In the U.S., around one-third of deaths every year could be prevented if there was a solution to this imminent issue. In the U.K., the wait time for a kidney transplant is projected to be at least two and a half years.
This is where the current work toward developing 3D printed organs could make some serious changes.
Is 3D Printing the Answer?
3D printed organs have the potential to radically impact the world of medicine by addressing the shortage of organs for transplants. In turn, this could be beneficial because it can extend lifespan and possibly eliminate the death caused by certain diseases.
Skin is one of the 3D printed organs currently in the works and is projected to benefit burn victims who have historically had to suffer through many obstacles in the recovery process.
Cartilage is another organ that is currently being worked on as it, along with skin, is a more simple organ to develop. The next step for researchers is to develop 3D printed organs that are more complex in nature, such as
“There’s enormous human benefit in bioprinting,” said Erik Gatenholm, Co-Founder of Cellink. “You die because your organs break. That’s why you die. If we can start replacing them, maybe we can extend the human lifespan. That’s really neat!”
The studies to successfully develop 3D printed organs are being conducted by so many research scientists, with one company—San Diego based Organovo— already having some success in printing parts of a heart muscle, a lung, and a kidney, that the developments are projected to make the industry worth over $1.31 billion by 2021.
Bioprinting: The Process
3D printed organs are made in a process similar to conventional 3D printing. A computer program is used to make a design which is then printed piece by piece until the product is complete. It’s a matter of adding layers repeatedly, which is why skin and cartilage are the easiest to make into 3D printed organs.
The material used to make these 3D printed organs is called bioink, which is primarily composed of nanocellulose alginate—extracted from seaweed.
Cellink was actually the first company in the world to bring bioink to market. The co-founder, Gatenholm, developed the idea after his father purchased a 3D bioprinter for work.
“My father was like, ‘[t]his thing can print human organs,’” recalled Gatenholm. “Then it printed a little piece of cartilage. It wasn’t cartilage, but it was like, this could be cartilage. That was the moment when it was like, ‘This is frickin’ cool!’”
Gatenholm then decided to work in 3D bioprinting and started his first biotech company at 18.
Researchers in Spain, who are focused specifically on the development of 3D printed skin, have developed a prototype 3D bioprinter that uses bioink containing both human plasma and material extracts taken from skin biopsies. Through this experiment they were able to print about 100 square centimeters of human skin in about 30 minutes.
Making Organs in Space
It may seem like an outlandish concept, but outer space is being considered as the most ideal environment to make 3D printed organs.
While the conditions of space are dangerous for humans, it’s quite the opposite for materials. Considering the fact that we have to subject material to different environments here on earth, such as fire and chemicals, it makes sense that space-built materials would be manufactured at increased rates off-planet.
The absence of gravity is one of the biggest benefits to making 3D printed organs in space. This environment allows materials to reach their full potential of growth without any obstacles while the ultra vacuum that is outer space helps eliminate the threat of impurities.
For example, crystals can grow to be 6 cubic millimeters in outer space. Whereas on earth, they grow to be 0.5 cubic millimeters.
"The idea of how microgravity can help cells grow has been around for a long time; in fact, one of the dominant tools that medical pharmaceutical research uses today, the rotating wall vessel, was actually developed as part of an '80s space shuttle effort at NASA," said Alex MacDonald, Senior Economic Adviser for NASA Headquarters' Office of the Administrator.
While space is being considered the most ideal environment for producing 3D printed organs, there are several setbacks, mainly cost.
"One of the challenges for making money from space manufacturing is, it's still quite expensive to launch things to space," explained MacDonald. "You're still dealing with thousands of dollars per kilogram. So, whatever you are going to be making in space that you're going to be sending down to Earth has to be incredibly valuable but also available per unit of mass."
While space transport is becoming more feasible, the cost of 3D printed organs remains. While people currently in need of an organ transplant have the obstacle of time and shortage ahead, for those who could benefit from 3D printed organs, the obstacle would be money.
“This is an extremely expensive technology that, if it is realized, only a few will be able to afford,” warned Dr. Niki Vermeulen, lead researcher at the University of Edinburgh. “There is a risk that the health inequalities and postcode lottery that currently exist will also make it unavailable for most people.”
Another issue that 3D printed organs would face in space is the need to maintain enough blood supply. It’s such a pressing matter that NASA is currently working to address it by offering $500,000 prizes for teams of researchers who can successfully vascularize liver, lung, heart, kidney, and muscle tissues.
While making 3D printed organs in space is still in its infancy, its potential is growing. "There are facilities on orbit that you can use and you can think about improving,” added MacDonald, when talking about the increased accessibility to outer space as a resource over the years. "There's so much potential to do things in this area now that we weren't able to do before...I think the really exciting stuff is still to come."