Revolutionary 3D printing technology could make life-saving surgery on other planets a real possibility.
NASA’s first crewed mission to Mars is expected to launch some time in the 2030s, and billionaire entrepreneur Elon Musk has spoken of putting a million people on the Red Planet by 2050.
But future Moon and Mars colonists will inevitably need medical treatment – and scientists are working on 3D printed human organs to make transplants and other essential medical treatments possible for future off-world colonists.
This week, NASA have announced the results of its Vascular Tissue Challenge, a six-year project to create lab-grown liver tissue to potentially provide transplant organs for astronauts on future deep-space missions.
The team of scientists that placed first in Vascular Tissue Challenge not only have a NASA’s $300,000 cash prize to boost their research, they will soon have a chance to send its research to the International Space Station.
Some synthetic tissue research has already taken place on the ISS. In 2019, astronaut Christina Koch used a pioneering device built by US company Techshot to print organic tissues in microgravity. That material could one day be the basis of the first 3D-printed synthetic human heart.
Scientists also theorise that creating viable synthetic organs could be easier in low-gravity environments such as in orbit or in a future Moon base.
While the idea of building synthetic human organs in a lab is already decades old, the renewed focus on space travel is accelerating research, says Laura Niklason, a professor of anaesthesia and biomedical engineering at Yale.
“Especially as the world is now looking at private and commercial space travel,” she told MIT Technology Review, “the biological impacts of low gravity are going to become more and more important, and this is a great tool for helping to understand that.”
Rich Boling, vice president of corporate advancement for Techshot, stressed that while the technology would also benefit earthbound humans too: “This has always been, for the most part, off the Earth, for the Earth. We’ve always felt like we’re doing this for things like the… for example, organ donor shortage,” he said.
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