Russian cosmonauts have built an engineered cartilage in the microgravity of the International Space Station for the first time, and it could help in long space flights.
Oleg Kononenko used a new type of ‘scaffold-free’ tissue engineering approach developed by Moscow firm 3D Bioprinting Solutions that uses magnetic fields.
The technique draws on the power of magnetic fields to overcome obstacles faced by traditional scaffolding-based approaches to cartilage engineering.
This approach, called ‘levitational bioassembly’, may also pave the way for advances in space regenerative medicine that could be used in long-distance space travel where astronauts and cosmonauts may be away from Earth for months or years.
Oleg Kononenko used a new type of ‘scaffold-free’ tissue engineering approach developed by Moscow firm 3D Bioprinting Solutions that uses magnetic fields
Tissue cells were placed in a temperature-controlled chamber to release the cartilage cells, then placed the cuvettes into the magnetic bioassembler to begin constructing tissue as seen in this image
Scientists have been pursuing scaffold-free engineering approaches that coax cells to self-assemble and develop into tissue without the help of a platform for years.
While magnetic levitational bioassembly has previously piqued researchers’ interest, prior techniques have relied on agents that are toxic to living cells in high levels.
To overcome this challenge lead author Vladislav Parfenov, from 3D Bioprinting Solutions, developed mathematical and computer models.
These were designed to find out if magnetic fields could be used for self-assembly of tissue in the microgravity of space.
Computer simulations were used to model how tissue spheroids, or 3D aggregates of cells in culture that retain the tissue’s architecture and functions, would fuse under microgravity conditions.
The researchers then developed viable tissue spheroids in a biological laboratory in Baikonur Cosmodrome in Khazakhstan using human cartilage cells.
The cells were embedded within hydrogel inside charged cuvettes and delivered to the Russian segment of the International Space Station along with a novel, custom-designed magnetic bioassembler.
While on board, a cosmonaut cooled the hydrogel down in a temperature-controlled chamber to release the cartilage cells, then placed the cuvettes into the magnetic bioassembler to begin constructing tissue.
This approach, called ‘levitational bioassembly’, may also pave the way for advances in space regenerative medicine that could be used in long-distance space travel where astronauts and cosmonauts may be away from Earth for months or years. They used a custom bioassembler
Oleg Kononenko unpacks the various parts of the experiment sent from Earth including the bioassembly device and human tissue cells preserved in hydrogel
Parfenov said the technique may also enable scientists to develop constructs in space that consist of both biological and inorganic materials.
This could include bone tissue equivalents for repairing limb damage on long flights.
‘The development of modern technologies for deep space exploration and the extension of manned space capabilities steadily increase the importance of space biotechnologies,’ said Parfenov.
It has already become possible to grow different species of plants producing oxygen and nutrients on the ISS, to obtain 3D biofilms of bacteria with altered synthetic and physiological activity, and to grow large protein crystals.
‘In this regard, the development of tissue engineering approaches to create complete equivalents of human tissues and organs to study the influence of space flight conditions and to meet the needs of space medicine is the next con- sequential step,’ he said.
The research has been published in the journal Science Advances.
EXPLAINED: THE $100 BILLION INTERNATIONAL SPACE STATION SITS 250 MILES ABOVE THE EARTH
The International Space Station (ISS) is a $100 billion (£80 billion) science and engineering laboratory that orbits 250 miles (400 km) above Earth.
It has been permanently staffed by rotating crews of astronauts and cosmonauts since November 2000.
Research conducted aboard the ISS often requires one or more of the unusual conditions present in low Earth orbit, such as low-gravity or oxygen.
ISS studies have investigated human research, space medicine, life sciences, physical sciences, astronomy and meteorology.
The US space agency, Nasa, spends about $3 billion (£2.4 billion) a year on the space station program, a level of funding that is endorsed by the Trump administration and Congress.
A U.S. House of Representatives committee that oversees Nasa has begun looking at whether to extend the program beyond 2024.
Alternatively the money could be used to speed up planned human space initiatives to the moon and Mars.