Dec 10, 2018 | By Cameron

Eventually, astronauts will travel to Mars and beyond. When that time comes, their health will depend on what they take with them, including medical supplies and expertise. For the short round trip to the moon, astronauts needed only a few bandages and antibiotics for emergencies, but when they’re months away from home they’ll need to be able to patch up more than abrasions and bruises. To address these medical issues of the future, experts from throughout Europe working in the fields of 3D printing, regenerative medicine, and space travel came together in Noordwijk, the Netherlands at ESA’s (European Space Agency) ESTEC centre for a two-day workshop on 3D bioprinting skin, bone, and organs to treat wounded and sick astronauts while in space.

Tommaso Ghidini, head of ESA’s Structures, Mechanisms, and Materials Division said, “For the first time in Europe, all the relevant experts have come together to discuss applying 3D bioprinting and regenerative medicine for space. We’re asking what astronauts would need in the short, medium and long term, and what steps are needed to mature 3D bioprinting to a level where it can be useful in space.” The further and longer astronauts are away from Earth, the greater their medical needs become, and attendees of the workshop have tasked themselves with determining the degree to which those needs can be met with 3D bioprinting.

“Compared to today’s low-Earth-orbiting crews, long distance missions to far away destinations will face very different challenges,” commented Sandra Podhajsky of OHB System’s Life Sciences Group, manager of the project. “In the event of a medical emergency a rapid return home will not be feasible. Instead, patients will have to be treated on the spot. Thus we are evaluating the feasibility and added value of implementing different 3D printing technologies and bioprinted tissues into future exploration missions.”

In extreme but plausible cases, colonizers of the moon and Mars will be there for years at a time. When one of them inevitably gets badly burned, the go-to practice of taking a skin-graft from another part of their body would be inadvisable because wounds heal more slowly in space, so creating a second wound would be too great a risk. But a 3D bioprinter could produce a skin graft from the person’s own DNA that would heal just like skin. The same idea could be applied to bone, and eventually, to organs. But producing the bones and organs is only half the battle as they still have to be surgically put into the astronauts, and function correctly of course.

“Another unknown is how bioprinted constructs will mature after printing and how their implementation in the human body will be affected by the altered conditions of space,” said Professor Michael Gelinsky, head of the Center for Translational Bone, Joint, and Soft Tissue Research at the University Hospital of Dresden Technical University. “The surgery required to transplant printed tissues also requires a rethink. The sterile environment, equipment and trained personnel of a terrestrial operating theatre may not be available, as well as the single-use surgical items employed casually on the ground.”

It may be more feasible, in the future, to use AI-assisted surgical robots for space surgery than it will be to send dedicated surgeons. The communications delay caused by great distance would make telemedicine impossible, so whatever the astronauts’ solutions are, they’ll have to be self-sufficient. And when it comes open, flexible, and custom solutions, there’s no better technology to rely on than 3D printing.



Posted in 3D Printing Application



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