PULSE Partners Publish Perspectives on Bioprinting Cardiac Tissue in Space

Project coordinator, Maastricht University, and SCK CEN Coordinate review the challenges and promises of space-based bioprinting cardiac tissue. Their findings are informing PULSE’s efforts to develop a magneto-acoustic bioprinter.

Astronaut working on a sealed gloved compartment in the International Space Station.
NASA astronaut Jessica Meir conducts cardiac research. Licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0.

As NASA sets its sights on crewed missions to the Moon and Mars, innovative technologies to safeguard long-term space exploration are urgently needed. Meanwhile, on Earth, organ shortages and the risk of rejection call for reliable alternatives. In this context, researchers from the PULSE project have published the collaborative perspective “Bioprinting of Cardiac Tissue in Space: Where Are We?

Led by PULSE coordinator Lorenzo Moroni from Maastricht University, the open-access review explored the current challenges of 3D bioprinting in space and recent advances in heart tissue research. The authors, including Kevin Tabury, head of radiobiology at SCK CEN, described potential future bioprinting opportunities in space and highlighted promising projects that could help engineer better heart tissues. PULSE sees itself as one such project as it develops a platform to 3D bioprint realistic cardiac models for studying the effects of the space environment and radiation.

Bioprinting Techniques: From Earth to Space

The researchers first delved into recent advancements in bioprinting techniques and how they might be applied in space. For example, manipulating biological material with magnetic levitation becomes less toxic for cells in microgravity, while other methods require less supportive scaffolding. PULSE plans to build upon these low-gravity synergies by adding acoustic levitation to the mix. This approach moves biological materials using sound waves without physical contact. Combining magnetic and acoustic levitation will enable precise, contactless handling of diverse materials, creating intricate and functional tissues that resemble natural organs.

Another technique that might be helpful for healthcare purposes is integrating bioprinting with organ-on-chip systems—microfluidic devices that interact with integrated biological systems. “Bioprinting together with organ-on-chip platforms enables more accurate models of human physiology, enhancing drug testing and development. Paired with the advantages of space, this could offer an advanced platform for generating crucial models for pharmaceutical research on Earth,” explained the authors.

The Challenges of Space

Weightlessness might have benefits when engineering tissues in space, but most 3D bioprinting challenges remain the same as the ones on Earth. Unique challenges are also emerging. These include altered fluid dynamics, reduced cell deposition, and biocompatible packaging and transportation logistics.

In space, biological materials are also exposed to ionizing radiation, “equivalent to four whole-body CT scans every six months on the International Space Station,” said the team. Despite the adverse effects this exposure could have on printed materials, it offers an invaluable opportunity to understand the impact of radiation on bioprinted tissues. PULSE seeks to use this to investigate how the space environment and radiation impact the physiology and pathology of the heart. The goal is to develop reliable and safe countermeasures that can minimize the adverse effects of radiation on astronauts during extended crewed missions and cancer patients during radiotherapy.

Challenges and Opportunities in Cardiac Tissue Bioprinting

Given the intricate cell-matrix interactions in the heart, overcoming barriers to structural integrity and functionality is crucial in cardiac tissue bioprinting. “The cardiovascular system needs particular attention in tissue engineering, not only to develop safe countermeasures for astronauts in upcoming deep and long-term space missions but also to bring solutions to organ transplantation shortage,” explained the team. Despite known challenges and knowledge gaps, bioprinted cardiac models hold immense potential to understand heart diseases and develop therapies on Earth and in space.

A Stepping Stone for PULSE

The insights gathered by Maastricht University and SCK CEN will guide their roles in the PULSE project as it advances 3D bioprinting for space exploration and healthcare. The development of a magneto-acoustic bioprinter for cardiac 3D models, led by Maastricht University, and SCK CEN’s expertise in assessing biological effects under simulated space conditions will be pivotal in achieving the project’s goals.