Indiana-based engineering firm and NASA contractor Techshot Inc. is working to develop a bioprinter capable of 3D printing in microgravity, with the goal of bioprinting human organs and tissues in orbit.

Partnering with bioprinter manufacturer nScrypt Inc. and bioink developer Bioficial Organs Inc., a prototype was successfully tested June 14 aboard a Zero Gravity Corp. aircraft capable of repeatedly producing several seconds of sustained microgravity.

The 3D bioprinting experiment during a parabolic flight. Image source: TechshotThe 3D bioprinting experiment during a parabolic flight. Image source: TechshotThe experiment, conducted 30,000 feet over the Gulf of Mexico, involved printing cardiac and vascular structures in zero gravity with adult human stem cells (see video). Developing this capability could result in the ability to manufacture transplantable organs in space for patients on earth, and support long-duration human exploration of deep space.

Essential to creating viable tissue in space is the ability to place and build fine bioink layers of bioink. 3D bioprinters and 3D electronics printers from nScrypt provide the capability to print layers several times smaller than a human hair, using print tips almost as small as a single human cell.

According to Bioficial Organs President and CEO Stuart Williams, “On earth, 3D bioprinting requires the use of thick bioinks that can contain chemicals and other materials necessary to provide structural support.” Printing tissues in space allows users to use finer print tips and lower viscosity bioinks that contain only the biological materials needed to create a healthy organ.

A smaller, more robust bioprinter will be designed based on the flight data, planned for autonomous operation aboard a commercial Blue Origin suborbital space capsule in January 2017. A version designed for the International Space Station (ISS) that is capable of printing thicker, more complex tissues is expected to follow in 2018.

Besides cardiac and vascular structures, the prototype device also printed electrically conductive and dielectric (insulative) material during the June airborne test. Organs and tissues printed later aboard the ISS will include built-in pacing wires and biosensors. A beating human heart patch is expected to be the first tissue attempted aboard the station.

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