Could 3D printers be used to treat Mars explorers’ injuries? German scientists from the University Hospital of Dresden Technical University have bio-printed skin and bone samples to determine whether the method could be used in a low-gravity environment.
Following successful initial trials, the European Space Agency (ESA) has shared videos of the printing in action. In order to print the skin sample, human blood plasma was used as a “bio ink”. Plant and algae-based materials were then added in order to elevate the viscosity so it would stay in one place in low gravity.
Nieves Cubo, a bioprinting specialist at the university said: “Producing the bone sample involved printing human stem cells with a similar bio-ink composition, with the addition of a calcium phosphate bone cement as a structure-supporting material, which is subsequently absorbed during the growth phase”.
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The initiative will assess how to equip astronauts with the medical and surgical facilities to enable them to survive and treat injuries during long spaceflights and while living on Mars. Long-term, it is hoped that 3D printers could be a key tool for Mars explorers.
Tommaso Ghidini, head of ESA’s Structures, Mechanisms and Materials Division explained: “Carrying enough medical supplies for all possible eventualities would be impossible in the limited space and mass of a spacecraft”.
“Instead, a 3D bioprinting capability will let them respond to medical emergencies as they arise,” he added.
In order to prevent transplant rejection, some of the raw materials, such as blood plasma, would come from the astronauts’ own bodies to protect against transplant rejection.
The ESA project already has ambitions to adapt the 3D printing of entire organs to cope with space conditions. So far this year, there have been advances in printing a minute heart from human tissue as well as a breathing lung air sac.