Organic Tissue

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

Status

Active research for decades and multiple companies, but technology not yet ready to grow organs.

Applications

  • 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. 4

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

Companies




References

  1. Keith W. Crane et al. Market Analysis of a Privately Owned and Operated Space Station. IDA Science & Technology Policy Institute. Published in March 2017. Source

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  2. Ioana Cozmuta et al. Space Portal NASA Ames Research Center. Microgravity-Based Commercialization Opportunities for Material Sciences and Life Sciences: A Silicon Valley Perspective. Source

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  3. Making Stuff in Space: Off-Earth Manufacturing Is Just Getting Started. Sarah Lewin, Space.com. Published 2018-05-11. Accessed 2019-01-31. Source

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  4. Andrew M. Thorpe, The Commercial Space Age: Conquering Space Through Commerce, 2003. Source

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