Space Tango CubeLab on board the International Space Station ISS.
Space Tango CubeLab on board the International Space Station ISS.
Source: Space Tango

Producing human tissue in space

The University of Zurich has sent adult human stem cells to the International Space Station (ISS). Researchers from UZH Space Hub will explore the production of human tissue in weightlessness.

On 6 March at 11:50 p.m. EST, the International Space Station resupply mission Space X CRS-20 took off from Cape Canaveral (USA). On board: 250 test tubes from the University of Zurich containing adult human stem cells. These stem cells will develop into bone, cartilage and other organs during the month-long stay in space. Professor Oliver Ullrich and Dr. Cora Thiel, the two research leaders at the UZH Space Hub, are testing their innovative concept of human tissue production in weightlessness for the benefit of transplantation medicine and precision medicine and as an alternative to animal experiments.

Weightlessness as a tool

“We are using weightlessness as a tool,” explains Cora Thiel. Physical forces such as gravity influence how stem cells differentiate and how the formation and regeneration of tissue is organized. The researchers assume that due to the low gravity on board the ISS, newly formed cells organize themselves into three-dimensional tissues without an additional matrix or other auxiliary structures. The experiment will take place in a mobile mini-laboratory, the CubeLab module of the US company Space Tango. The module consists of a closed and sterile system, in which the stem cells can proliferate and differentiate at constant temperature.

If the test project is successful, it is planned to gradually switch from a small laboratory to a larger production scale. In the future, the innovative process can be used to generate tissue transplants such as cartilage or new liver cells in space from stem cells which are harvested from individual patients in a routine procedure. According to Oliver Ullrich, an additional application is emerging in precision medicine: “Artificially produced autologous human tissue could be used to determine which combination of drugs is the most suitable for the patient in question. In addition, human tissue and organ-like structures produced in space could help to reduce the number of animal experiments.”

Airbus is also convinced of the potential. The public-private partnership is structured as follows: The Airbus division “Defence and Space” has designed the inlets for the interior of the transport boxes. For their design and manufacture, innovative processes such as selective laser sintering (SLS), a special 3D printing process, were used. The inlets ensure safe transport of the cell samples with maximum volume utilization. In addition, Airbus is organizing access to the ISS, transport of the test tubes to and from the ISS and providing ground support equipment. Ullrich and Thiel are contributing the research idea and study design, and are carrying out the scientific work and providing the scientific staff.

Housing of the mobile CubeLab containing 250 test tubes for the production of...
Housing of the mobile CubeLab containing 250 test tubes for the production of human tissues in weightlessness.
Source: Space Tango

Low Earth Orbit as a future production location

Contrary to widespread opinion, transportation into space no longer causes costs to skyrocket today. “In space projects, the main cost drivers are the custom-made hardware and the bureaucracy,” says Ullrich, Professor of Anatomy at UZH and director of the UZH Space Hub. He therefore deliberately relies on established medical serial products for equipment and instruments. Ullrich is convinced of the future benefits of space flight: “In a few decades, humankind will use the Low Earth Orbit as a routine place for research, development and production.”

Subscribe to our newsletter

Related articles

Oxygen-releasing bioink for bioprinting

Oxygen-releasing bioink for bioprinting

Researchers have developed an oxygen-releasing bioink that may be useful in 3D printing bioengineered cell constructs.

3D printing heart cells from stem cells

3D printing heart cells from stem cells

Scientists have shown that 3D printing can be used to control stem cell differentiation into embryoid bodies that replicate heart cells.

Sugar: Sweet way to 3D print blood vessels

Sugar: Sweet way to 3D print blood vessels

Scientists have developed a way of using laser-sintering of powdered sugars to produce highly detailed structures that mimick the body’s intricate, branching blood vessels in lab-grown tissues.

Researchers successfully bioprint healthy new tissue

Researchers successfully bioprint healthy new tissue

New muscle has successfully been created in mice using a minimally invasive technique dubbed ‘intravital 3D bioprinting’.

Bioprinting complex living tissue in seconds

Bioprinting complex living tissue in seconds

Researchers have developed an extremely fast optical method for sculpting complex shapes in stem-cell-laden hydrogels and then vascularizing the resulting tissue.

Silicone-based 3D lattice can improve drug testing

Silicone-based 3D lattice can improve drug testing

Scientists have found the perfect geometry: on a newly developed 3D silicone lattice, human stem cells will grow and behave in the same way as they do inside the human body.

3D printing skin, bones on way to Mars

3D printing skin, bones on way to Mars

An ESA project has produced its first bioprinted skin and bone samples. The 3D printing human tissue could help keep astronauts healthy all the way to Mars.

Can bioprinted stem-cell tissue be used to treat kidney disease?

Can bioprinted stem-cell tissue be used to treat kidney disease?

Researchers have announced a collaboration to 3D bioprint stem-cell tissue that could one day be used to treat end-stage kidney disease.

3D printing of biological tissue

3D printing of biological tissue

Scientists hope we will soon be using 3D-printed biologically functional tissue to replace irreparably damaged tissue in the body.

Popular articles