Growing protein crystals or organic tissues in microgravity results in larger and more uniform structures, potentially enabling to grow organs.
Last updated: 2019-02-06
Active research for decades and multiple companies, but technology not yet ready to grow organs.
- Growing human organs
- Growing human skin.
- Protein crystal growth (skin, hair, nails).
- Larger more ordered crystals.2
Why & Solution
Bio-medical scientists grow artificial proteins in laboratories on Earth to understand how they work and to learn how to adjust treatments and medications accordingly. The problem is that proteins grow into flat, dimensionless blobs making them hard to analyze with existing equipment. When proteins are grown in the microgravitational environment of space, wonderfully large and articulate structures emerge. These space-borne protein crystal can be easily tested and this makes it easier for researchers to find cures for diseases. Because proteins grow so well in space, organs and artificial skin can also. Any protein damaged beyond repair by accidents or diseases can be grown more efficiently in the low gravity.
In the long term, other products may potentially be profitably manufactured in LEO for sale on Earth—for example, growing human organs in space for transplant operations. However, we found that the current state of technological readiness of this potential process did not fall into the timeframe discussed in report "Market Analysis of a Privately Owned and Operated Space Station". Research on 3D tissue engineering on the Space Shuttle and the ISS has shown improvements in the size and quality of tissues grown in space compared to those grown on Earth. Growing tissues on Earth results in clumped, almost two-dimensional materials, while growing tissues in space results in more uniformity in three dimensions, similar to how beads produced in space are almost perfect spheres. For most organs, threedimensional tissue engineering still tends to be at an early stage of development; the technology readiness level (TRL) of this research is low. On a scale of 1 to 10, with 10 being ready for commercial launch, in 2014, Carroll et al. (2014) rated tissue engineering to grow organs as TRL-3. According to some, growing portions of organs and muscles in microgravity on parabolic and suborbital flights has shown promise and may become commercially viable by 2024 (expert interview). 1
Cells can grow into larger networks without gravity pulling them down into their container as would happen on Earth. "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," MacDonald said. "The cells aren't smart, but they're adaptable," Harper said. "And if they touch a side or a surface, it gives them a message that's biologically misleading." "Organs, of course, are incredibly high-value, both in their ability to save life, but also their cost in terms of the medical economy," MacDonald said. "You've started to see companies start to experiment — so far, not on the space station, but on parabolic flights." 3
A 3D BioFabrication Facility (BFF) developed by nScrypt and Techshot and designed to 3D print thick tissue and organs using adult stem cells will launch to the International Space Station (ISS) aboard the next SpaceX cargo resupply mission.
During the companies years of research, it was found that 3D bioprinted soft, easily flowing biomaterials (i.e, human tissue) collapse under their own weight. However, these same materials are able to maintain their shapes when produced in the microgravity environment of space.
Thus, these structures, which will consist of blood vessels and muscle, will be 3D bioprinted in space and placed in a cell-culturing system that strengthens them over time. This will permit them to become viable, self-supporting tissues that will remain solid once back on Earth.
The initial phase for BFF, which could last an estimated two years, will involve creating test prints of cardiac-like tissue of increasing thickness. The following phase will involve an Earth-based evaluation of heart patches manufactured in space under a microscope and potentially in small animals such as rats. This is expected to last through 2024.
Aims to use the microgravity environment of the ISS to improve the manufacturing process for the company’s protein-based retinal implant that is capable of restoring vision in patients with retinal degeneration.