Skolkovo resident company 3D Bioprinting Solutions has become the first company to use a 3D printer to create live tissue in space, printing an organ construct for the thyroid gland of a mouse on board the International Space Station (ISS) this month.
The Organaut bioprinter designed for printing biological material in zero gravity conditions. Photo: 3D Bioprinting Solutions.
The experiment was carried out by Russian cosmonaut Oleg Kononenko in the Russian sector of the ISS: the first experiment of its kind in printing live tissue and micro-organs in space. The aim of the experiment is both to forward the drive to create human donor organs using a 3D printer, which is facilitated by a lack of gravity, and to study the effect of radiation on the human body with a view to long-distance space travel.
“We will receive the biological material on the evening of December 20 [when the ISS crew returns to Earth], and the next day we will carry out the first analysis of it,” Usef Hesuani, head of laboratory projects and managing partner at 3D Bioprinting Solutions, a resident of the Skolkovo Foundation’s biomed cluster, said at a press conference in Moscow on Tuesday.
“Later we will look at how the constructs came together, and how they behaved. I think we will get the preliminary results by the end of January.”
3D Bioprinting Solutions made headlines around the world in 2015 when the company printed a functioning thyroid construct on Earth and transplanted it into a living mouse. This led to the idea in 2016 of teaming up with Roscosmos, Russia's state space corporation, to print cell tissue directly in space, to enable scientists to study the effect of space radiation on the human body. This is particularly relevant to ambitious plans for long-distance space travel, such as a mission to Mars, when astronauts will be out of range of the Earth’s protective magnetic shield for years at a time.
In addition, the research could be applied to the quest of printing donor organs for people: on Earth, cells grown artificially grow in a flatter structure than they do naturally in the human body. When grown in conditions of microgravity, however, the cells take on a more natural structure and make it possible to employ a new kind of 3D printing: formative technology.
Usef Hesuani, managing partner at 3D Bioprinting Solutions, a resident of the Skolkovo Foundation. Photo: Sk.ru.
On December 3, the Organaut space bioprinter (which takes its name from the words “automated” and “organ”) was sent up to the Russian sector of the ISS to carry out experiments on printing cartilage tissue and a rodent thyroid gland, since 3D Bioprinting Solutions already has experience in these areas, and accordingly, points of reference. The company presented its goals, plans and methods in detail earlier this year at a conference held at Skolkovo titled “Biofabrication in Space: New Opportunities for Conducting Biological Experiments.”
The 3D bioprinter was developed especially for use in microgravity, and does not resemble the Fabion printer that 3D Bioprinting Solutions developed for use on Earth. For starters, there isn’t a single button or switch on the machine, meaning there is little to do for the cosmonauts themselves in terms of the actual printing process.
“The great thing about the bioprinter is that it doesn’t need controlling, either from Earth or on board the station,” Hesuani told Sk.ru in an interview earlier this year.
The bulk of the work is focused on how the biomaterials are prepared for printing, and how they are then preserved after printing, he said.
“The hardest thing about the experiment was working out how to get it to the ISS and bring the materials back to Earth,” he said, noting that everything has to be extremely secure and durable, since the experiment involves biological materials.
Ivan Kosenkov, 3D Bioprinting Solutions' project manager within Skolkovo's space cluster. Photo: Sk.ru.
The initiator of the contact between 3D Bioprinting Solutions and Roscosmos was Alexei Belyakov, who introduced the two sides in 2016, according to Valentin Uvarov, head of manned spacecraft commercial projects at United Rocket and Space Corporation, a state-owned entity that comprises part of Roscosmos and that signed the agreement with 3D Bioprinting Solutions.
Eventually it became a three-way project between 3D Bioprinting Solutions, Roscosmos and Invitro, the parent company of 3D Bioprinting Solutions.
“It was a serious challenge, not least because of the very tight deadline. It seemed like it would be impossible to make this experiment happen in such a short period of time,” Andrei Divaev, deputy director of the business systems department of Roscosmos, said at Tuesday’s press conference.
Hesuani said 3D Bioprinting Solutions plans to cooperate with other Skolkovo startups to conduct experiments on micro-satellite systems.
“We have companies that are making satellite platforms, and it is possible to conduct a similar experiment amid microgravity on small spacecraft [such as satellites] without the involvement of cosmonauts,” said Ivan Kosenkov, 3D Bioprinting Solutions’ project manager within the Skolkovo Foundation’s cluster of advanced manufacturing, nuclear and space technologies, who described the experiment carried out on board the ISS as “proof of the effectiveness of the Skolkovo ecosystem.”
“It’s possible that this would even be simpler and cheaper,” he noted.