Space Science Part 2: Interstellar Inventions

Turns out there’s a lot in space. These medical technologies didn’t make it into the first post but are too exciting to skip writing about.

Anyone who’s watched a space travel movie knows that it’s important to be prepared for unexpected medical emergencies. Yes, this is partly a writing device to get the audience’s heart racing. However, it’s also a scenario that scientists charged with paving the way for deep space travel are considering. Some of the solutions that these individuals are pursuing seem equally out of a sci-fi movie or novel such as robot doctors, printable organs, and 3D tissue models.  

Robots to the Rescue

Cmglee / CC BY-SA (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)

Robots are accurate, stable, and tireless. They’re also less sensitive to many of the dangers of space such as temperature extremes, radiation, and no oxygen. Consequently, they’ve become an integral part of most missions where they help by making outside repairs, moving large objects, taking routine measurements, and even cleaning. In the future, however, robots may also be a key member of the medical staff.

Robotic arms and even more humanoid robots like this one could assist doctors during an operation in space or on another planet. Such robots can make very fine incisions that optimize wound healing and minimize the need for blood replacement. Sometimes they can even perform certain movements that are impossible for human surgeons!

These robots could also allow earthbound specialists to operate the robot while the chief medical officers of the mission oversaw the procedure. Tela-operations would be equally helpful on earth when dangerous environmental conditions, contagious outbreaks, and/or heavy combat bar doctors from being able to access and operate on patients.

Printing Parts

Far from home, a sick or injured astronaut would not have access to the network of organ donations that are a key part of many treatment opinions. However, researchers on earth and above are working on 3D printing technologies that can create tissues and organs that mimic or match our own.

With such technology onboard, astronauts would be able to potentially treat even the most severe medical cases. This would likely involve harvesting stem cells from the injured party, culturing these cells, mixing these cells into one or more “bio-inks”, and then printing these inks through a super fine nozzle and onto a temporary and degradable scaffolding. Once perfected, bioprinting organs and tissues for replacement surgeries would also be lifesaving on earth where the number of people needing a donated organ consistently exceeds the number of donors.

In some cases, printed 3D organs also may be made from specialized material that can perform the essential functions of the tissue that it is replacing – such as in these 3D lungs made by researchers at the University of Washington. In other cases (like the one described in the previous paragraph), cultured humans cells might be used. A team of researchers at Tel Aviv University has successfully done this with one of the more complex human organs – a heart.

Printing highly functional tissues or tissue-like organs has many challenges. Printing them in space has the additional challenge of no gravity! But researchers are using magnetic fields to push cells together even when gravity is absent. In July 2020, the company 3D Bioprinting Solutions revealed that they had successfully printed a mouse thyroid gland in space using this approach.

To Boldly Go Where No Tissue Has Gone Before 

Making simple prototype tissue and organ structures may help astronauts in another way. These prototypes could be sent into space to help scientists more fully understand the effects of radiation and microgravity on cell systems. They could also be used to test preventative technologies much like car dummies are used to test new safety features in cars.

With these goals in mind, NASA’s created the Vascular Tissue Challenge. This challenge offers $500,000 to the first team (or teams) of scientists who can create a tissue culture that is at least 1 cm thick and whose cells can survive for 30 days. These dual requirements – thickness and longevity – requires that each cell has access to oxygen and needed nutrients as well as a way to remove waste. In humans, these functions are performed by the vascular or circulatory system and its network of arteries, veins, and capillaries. Scientists tackling the VT challenge need to find a way to recreate this vascularization within their tissue cultures.

If created (and keep your eyes on your newsfeed as the competition deadline for this challenge was September 2020) such vascularized tissues could be used as organ analogs in experiments involving deep space conditions as well as in disease modeling and pharmaceutical research.

Next Steps

NASA also has several challenges, hackathons, and citizen science games for middle and high school students that contribute directly to its mission of exploring the universe. Click here to learn more and see which challenges or resources work best for your class. Or, if you’re at home, I highly recommend this article about Expeditionary Behaviors or “EBs” that make living in confined spaces with a large team successful and even enjoyable.