NASA Astronauts are Growing Human Organs in Space

Using "weightlessness as a tool," NASA astronauts and researchers at University of Zurich are attempting to grow body parts in space.

12.03.2020 | by Kezia Parkins
Photo by Nicolagypsicola on Unsplash
Photo by Nicolagypsicola on Unsplash

3D printing is undoubtedly one of the most exciting technologies of our time. What’s even more exciting, though, is that this tech is being tested to manufacture biological materials, like new tissue, organs or blood vessels — in outer-space. 

Researchers at University of Zurich have teamed up with NASA astronauts aboard the International Space Station (ISS) to grow three-dimensional cultures in near-zero gravity.

Simply put, they are growing new organs in space using human stem cells sent in test-tubes from Earth.

The hope is that these stem cells will eventually turn into bone, cartilage, and other organs that can then be transplanted into patients in need.


Why Space?

Cara Thiel, one of the two researchers from the University of Zurich conducting this research, explained that the project is taking place in space to use “weightlessness as a tool.”

Oliver Ullrich, who is also leading the research says that the absence of gravity aboard the ISS will be harnessed to encourage the stem cells to grow in 3D, rather than the “monolayer” 2D structures that form on Earth. 


The future of Biomanufacturing?

Dr Mike Roberts is the Deputy Chief Scientist at the ISS U.S. National Laboratory. He says that the space station is critical to the future of biomanufacturing.

“We’ve been able to grow cells in a lab for well over a century”, he notes. “But gravity limits that growth to two dimensions. Cells can grow outward, but not up and down like they do in the human body. Also, lab cells are often in contact with the glass or plastic that contains them. But aboard the space station, our experiments will be conducted in microgravity. That allows you to build your cell models in three dimensions, without being confined to the bottom of a dish or unable to grow in contact with lots of other cells.”

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In a month-long experiment, the ISS astronauts will use a “mobile mini-laboratory” that was sent on a SpaceX rocket last week and throughout the scientists will be keeping a close watch to see how the stem cells grow.

When the scientists get the samples back, they expect to see the successful formation of “organoids” – smaller, simpler versions of organs – inside the test tubes. 

Organs are made of specific tissue and most are intersected by a complex network of blood vessels that provide nutrients and remove waste from the living cells that make up the tissue. 

Right now we lack the ability and the tools to engineer these marvellous body parts but this is exactly what biomanufacturing imagines for the future.


Medical advantage

Another medical advantage to manufacturing biological parts in space is the potential to bypass the body’s immune system. 

Organ transplants of today are from donors and therefore prone to rejection because the patient’s body perceives the new organ as a foreign object, and their immune system tries to attack it. 

With the ability to grow tissue in space, a patient’s own cells could be used to make their new organ, which might avoid the body’s rejection. 

Furthermore, being able to generate organ-like material could potentially be used for other medical experiments, which would minimize the use of animals in drug testing and experiments. 


Bioprinting Could Eliminate Animal Testing in Medicine

Three different types of biomanufacturing facilities will be tested aboard the space station by the NASA astronauts. Two will operate in a manner similar to a standard 3D printer – they extrude cells in layers to build tissue.

The third type uses powerful magnets to position the cells in place. 

Each approach to bioprinting in microgravity will be available to medical researchers seeking to better understand how to engineer tissues and organs for use in repairing injury and curing disease on Earth.

As Dr. Roberts notes: “The 3D bioprinters represent cutting-edge technologies that could clearly benefit health outcomes on Earth. I think the ability to manufacture a fully functioning human organ will take some time – maybe a decade or more – but the knowledge we’ll acquire to get there will also create interim benefits as we learn more about cell regeneration in space and its application to humans on Earth.” 

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