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USU 4D Bio3 Test Prints Human Knee Meniscus on the International Space Station

Col. (Dr.) Andrew Morgan prepares the 3D Bio-Fabrication Facility with a USU pennant above it.
By Vivian Mason

America’s first 3D bioprinter aboard the International Space Station’s National Laboratory successfully manufactured test prints of human knee meniscus in microgravity space.

The Uniformed Services University of Health Sciences’ 4-Defense Biotechnology, Biomanufacturing, and Bioprinting program (4D Bio3) in partnership with Techshot, Inc., a commercial space company, developed an experiment to biofabricate human knee meniscus using the 3D BioFabrication Facility on the International Space Station.  This was a pilot project for a larger 4D Bio3 program called Fabrication in Austere Military Environments (FAME).  The goal of the FAME program is to utilize 3D printers to produce military-relevant medical products in extreme austere environments, including space, for the benefit of our warfighters. 

USU alumnus and NASA astronaut Army Col. (Dr.) Andrew Morgan, who returned to Earth April 17 after spending 272 days on the Space Station, conducted tests while on board using the 3D BioFabrication Facility to create human tissues in space. The bioprinter can create viable tissue using technology to precisely place and build ultrafine layers of bioink (roughly the width of a human hair) through four different print heads to build different parts of the tissue.

Col. (Dr.) Andrew Morgan services the Bio-Fabrication Facility, a 3D bioprinter that seeks to demonstrate
manufacturing human organs in space to help patients on Earth. [Image credit: Courtesy of NASA]

4D Bio3 is a research and educational initiative at USU led by Dr. Vincent B. Ho, professor and chair of the Department of Radiology and Radiological Sciences at the university’s F. Edward Hébert School of Medicine. The FAME pilot program was launched by 4D Bio3 last year with the pilot-testing of a deployed 3D multi-material printer to Africa that printed surgical instruments, bioactive bandages, and meniscal tissue.

This Space Station project was led by USU assistant professor Dr. Joel Gaston and Dr. George Klarmann, both Geneva Foundation contract senior research scientists with 4D Bio3. The pair developed and refined the computer-aided design and biofabrication of human medial and lateral menisci using various bioinks and human stem cell products in the 4D Bio3 laboratory. Meniscal injuries are commonly treated orthopedic injuries and have a much higher incidence in military service members, and the experiment in space served as a major test of the materials and processes necessary to print a meniscus in the remote, austere setting.

Techshot engineers uploaded the 4D Bio3 design file to the printer from their Payload Operations Control Center.  Morgan loaded biomaterials into the BFF and test-printed the tissues in the weightless environment of space. The success of the prints was determined using real-time video from inside the unit with simultaneous communication by Morgan with 4D Bio3 and Techshot scientists on Earth.

NASA Astronaut and Uniformed Services University of the Health Sciences graduate Col. (Dr.) Andrew Morgan prepares the 3D Bio-Fabrication Facility for meniscus test prints aboard the International Space Station. The experiment
was designed by USU's 4D Bio3 (4-Defense Biotechnology, Biomanufacturing, and Bioprinting) program as
part of its Fabrication in Austere Military Environments (FAME) pilot program. [Image credit: Courtesy of NASA]

The print materials and design files were sent to the Space Station onboard a SpaceX resupply mission launched from Kennedy Space Center March 6.  The materials were returned to Earth prior to Morgan’s descent from space for more extensive physical testing at 4D Bio3. Biomaterials and human cells for a second set of meniscus prints will launch on a later SpaceX mission.

Although researchers have seen success with the biofabricated cartilage, manufacturing soft human tissue has been more difficult. On Earth, when attempting to print with soft biomaterials, tissues may collapse under their own weight, resulting in little more than a puddle. However, if these same materials are used in space, then 3D-printed soft tissues will maintain their shape.

Without proper preparation, space-printed tissues would also collapse if immediately returned to Earth. So, the scientists are using a cell culturing system in conjunction with the biofabrication facility that strengthens printed tissue over time so that it will remain solid in Earth’s gravity. The tissue printing process normally takes less than one day, while the strengthening process will take approximately 12 to 45 days, depending on the tissue.

Using 3D bioprinting, manufacturing human tissue in microgravity space could aid in the production of tissue that may be difficult to do on Earth. While astronauts like Morgan continue to work with the 3D bioprinter and microgravity research, the biofabrication facility technology can offer a unique opportunity to improve patient care via patient-specific replacement tissue (or patches), help alleviate the organ shortage crisis, and produce remarkable breakthroughs for the future of medicine.