Space Stations

WFIRM Bioprinting Research Makes History When It Soars To The ISS

By Keith Cowing
Press Release
Atrium Health Wake Forest Baptist
May 18, 2023
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WFIRM Bioprinting Research Makes History When It Soars To The ISS
WFIRM Gyroid Shaped Construct CREDIT WFIRM

The Wake Forest Institute for Regenerative Medicine (WFIRM) will make history this month when the first bioprinted solid tissue constructs soar to the International Space Station (ISS) on board the next all private astronaut mission by commercial space leader Axiom Space.

The Axiom Mission 2 (Ax-2) launch by Houston-based Axiom Space is launching from Florida’s Kennedy Space Center. The crew will conduct extensive scientific research experiments including WFIRM’s vascularized tissue research – which won first place in the NASA Vascular Tissue Challenge in 2021.

Liver and kidney tissue constructs bioprinted by WFIRM scientists will be on the May Ax-2 launch from Kennedy Space Center in Florida to the ISS in low-Earth orbit. The tissues will be studied for 10 days to evaluate the vascularization of thick tissue in microgravity and the effectiveness of this platform technology for other tissue types.

“This launch marks an important next step for our regenerative medicine research related to vascularized tissue,” said WFIRM Director Anthony Atala, MD. “This is an opportunity to develop an interim/early step toward creating solid tissues/partial organs for transplantation into patients in the future to address the organ shortage.”

Previous research on ISS using cells in low-Earth orbit has included both 2D and small 3D cultures. These prior experiments have shown that cells exposed to micro-gravity undergo both genetic and functional changes, including increased motility and proliferation. Studying these larger tissue constructs in microgravity will help inform the researchers not only with regards to how the liver/kidney cells respond, but also as to how an endothelial coating of blood vessel cells will react to the altered atmosphere.

One of the most important factors in developing larger organ models is cell adhesion. This allows the cells to stick to each other or the material they are embedded in, creating multi-dimensional structures such as organoids and full tissues. This model will allow WFIRM researchers to delve into the specifics of cell adhesion in determining the overall 3D structure necessary to organ survival.

“While many components of cell adhesion have been studied in microgravity, every time the model changes it allows for new insight as to how changes in cell adhesion may affect human organs in microgravity,” said James Yoo, MD, PhD, professor of regenerative medicine at WFIRM. “We look forward to determining how this bioprinted tissue will model a more complete version of adherence reactions to microgravity.”

The WFIRM team will employ a digital light processing bioprinter that uses a light-curing resin made up of tissue cells to print the liver and kidney constructs into a unique-shaped architecture called a gyroid. The interconnected channels of the gyroid shape allow for a uniform flow of nutrition media throughout the inner surfaces of these cell-laden tissue constructs.

To prepare for launch, liver and kidney tissue constructs will be bioprinted independently. To assist in the maturation of the tissues, samples will be placed on flow, continuously exposed to perfused media for either five or ten days prior to launch. They will then be placed in transparent cell-culture containers that provide a closed system in which to grow the cells while on orbit.

While the research is taking place on the ISS, WFIRM research associates will be monitoring a duplicate set of samples on Earth. These will act as a gravity control and will undergo the same processes as those on the ISS. The team will be in communication during mission operations conducted on the ISS so the same activity timeline can be applied to the control constructs in the WFIRM lab.

While the primary focus for the team is on creating tissue constructs that can be used as a bridge to transplantation, they can also be used as a model system for human disease and testing potential new therapies as well as for studying health effects and developing potential countermeasures for astronauts who spend a significant amount of time in space.

“Taking the first steps toward future in-space manufacturing applications for biomedical products on Ax-2 is exciting,” said Jana Stoudemire, Director, In Space Manufacturing, Axiom Space. “We are pleased to work with recognized leaders from the WFIRM team, highly regarded for their excellence in tissue engineering and translational regenerative medicine, to advance this important work as we build a future commercial space economy together.”

WFIRM team members include WFIRM Director Anthony Atala, MD; James Yoo, MD, PhD; Sang Jin Lee, PhD; Colin Bishop, PhD; Kelsey Willson and Timothy Dombroski, PhD graduate students.

SpaceRef co-founder, Explorers Club Fellow, ex-NASA, Away Teams, Journalist, Space & Astrobiology, Lapsed climber.