Microgravity Tissue Engineering Could Help Deep Space Crews Regrow Human Body Parts


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A Russian cosmonaut has successfully bioengineered human cartilage tissue aboard the International Space Station (ISS), with findings that may one day enable regenerative medicine during deep space missions.

Human Bodies Suffer in Space

Not designed to exist in microgravity or to withstand the bombardment of space radiation, human bodies are put under strain and can atrophy after even relatively short periods in space. Of particular concern are the effects of microgravity on human intervertebral discs and articular cartilages.

After one year on the ISS, NASA astronaut Scott Kelly suffered from symptoms including fluid-swollen upper body and head, unusual gene activation, and an overactive immune system. Kelly lost body mass and experienced genome instability, a swelling of blood vessels, a change in eye shape, metabolism shifts, inflammation in his microbiome, a lengthening of his telomeres, and — scarily — a loss of cognitive ability. 

And that’s just after one year. If crews one day intend to travel in space for long periods or even for WALL-E-style multigenerational journeys, advances in space regenerative medicine and associated technology will be extremely necessary.

Self-reliant crews may need to use a futuristic bioprinter to conduct surgery, replace a human body part, or grow replacement organs. But until now, bioassembly technology has relied on gravity and artificial or natural scaffolds to bring cartilage cells together.

The Experiment

Russian cosmonaut Oleg Kononenko assembled cartilage cells without gravity in space using a custom-designed magnetic bioassembler known as Bioprinter Organ.Aut. The machine used a magnetic field to biofabricate 3D tissue constructs from tissue spheroids consisting of human chondrocytes. The results were published in July 2020 in Science Advances.

The technology used two opposing magnets to generate waves or fields that pushed the cells towards each other, enabling Kononenko to assemble them into complex tissue structures. The approach, known as magnetic levitational bioassembly, constructs tissue in microgravity by sewing cells together in a magnetic field to bypass the need for scaffolds (support structures) when building tissue.

The experiment was performed during ISS Expedition 58/59.

Other Applications

Technologies developed in orbit can change the way medicine is practiced on Earth. The magnetic levitational bioassembly technique may lead to new discoveries in cancer biology, along with HIV and COVID-19 research.

The bioassembler may also have another practical application on long space journeys: 3D-fabricating meat. It was built by Russian startup 3D Bioprinting Solutions, recently featured in the news after announcing a partnership with KFC to create the world’s first 3D-printed chicken nuggets.

Previous Tissue Engineering Experiments in Space

The ISS National Lab provides a unique environment to perform microgravity experiments not possible on the ground. Microgravity may enhance the properties of stem cells such as helping them develop from general-purpose to specialized cells, form 3D aggregates, and increase in number.

Other bioengineering experiments that have taken place on board the International Space Station include the fabrication of a mouse thyroid gland, 3D-printing meat, fabricating bones, fabricating three-dimensional bacterial biofilms, and growing crystals of protein compounds.

Image Credit: Andrey Armyagov / Shutterstock.com

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