New research by The University of Manchester will enhance the power of bioprinting technology, opening doors to transform advances in medicine and address critical health challenges faced by astronauts during space missions.

Bioprinting involves using specialised 3D printers to print living cells creating new skin, bone, tissue or organs for transplantation.

The technique has the potential to revolutionise medicine, and specifically in the realm of space travel, bioprinting could have a significant impact.

Astronauts on extended space missions have an increased health risk due to the absence of gravity and exposure to radiation. This makes them susceptible to diseases such as osteoporosis caused by loss of bone density and can cause injuries, such as fractures, which currently can’t be treated in space.

By harnessing bioprinting capabilities in space, researchers aim to protect the health of space explorers.

Currently, bioprinting machines rely on Earth’s gravity to function effectively. The new research by The University of Manchester, funded by a £200,000 grant from the UK Space Agency and supported by the European Space Agency, seeks to understand how to optimise the bioprinting process for conditions experienced in space, such as lack of gravity.

Dr Marco Domingos, Senior Lecturer in Mechanical and Aeronautical Engineering at The University of Manchester, said: “This project marks a significant leap forward in bioprinting technology and by addressing the challenges posed by microgravity, we are paving the way for remarkable advancements in medicine and space exploration.”

Libby Moxon, Exploration Science Officer for Lunar and Microgravity, added: “The University of Manchester’s pioneering project investigating a novel approach for bioprinting in space will help strengthen the UK’s leadership in the areas of fluid mechanics, soft matter physics and biomaterials, and could help protect the health of astronauts exploring space around the Earth, Moon and beyond.

“We’re backing technology and capabilities that support ambitious space exploration missions to benefit the global space community, and we look forward to following this bioprinting research as it evolves.”

Eventually, the team, including Dr Domingos, Prof Anne Juel and Dr Igor Chernyavsky, will take their findings to a bioprinting station being developed on board the International Space Station, which will allow researchers to print models in space and study the effects of radiation and microgravity.

Dr Domingos said: “The first challenge is figuring out how to print anything where there is no gravity. There are few facilities in the UK that are suitable to study the bioprinting process within an environment that matches that of space – they are either too small, or the time in which microgravity conditions are applies are too short. Hence, it is important to print in space to advance our knowledge in this field.

“By combining the principles of physics with bioprinting at The University of Manchester, we hope to come up with a solution before taking it to the International Space Station for testing.”

The project will take place over two years at the Bioprinting Technology Platform based at the Henry Royce Institute on The University of Manchester’s campus.

It hopes to develop beyond the challenge of microgravity to address further challenges of preserving, transporting and processing cells in space.

This research is funded by the UK Space Agency and supported by the European Space Agency.