Astronauts testing bioprinted bandages made of human skin

Traveling into space is a dangerous endeavor. Humans have evolved to live on the surface of our planet and venturing outside of our atmosphere brings all manner of complications. There are the obvious things, like the lack of food, water, and oxygen. Not to mention the deadly vacuum of space or the potentially toxic environments of other worlds. Then there are less obvious problems, things which might not be immediately deadly but could become a problem in an emergency.

Here on Earth, if you become injured you have access to a world’s worth of infrastructure including over the counter medications and healthcare systems. In space, if you get a flesh wound, your crewmates might hear you scream but they’ll have limited ways to help. An experiment by German Space Agency (DLR) is hoping to solve this problem with bioprinted bandages made from an astronaut’s own cells.

SpaceX’s 24th commercial resupply mission to the International Space Station, which launched in late 2021, carried with it a handheld device known as the Bioprint FirstAid Handheld Bioprinter, or Bioprint FirstAid for short.

The device is designed to hold cells from astronauts or Earth-bound patients, infused inside a bio-ink. In the event of an injury, the Bioprint FirstAid would be used to apply a bandage to the injury site in near real-time. The bio-ink mixes with two fast setting gels and will create a covering similar to plaster.

Previously existing technologies for creating similar structures involved bulky machinery and required additional time for the patches to mature. The Bioprint FirstAid has the benefit of being small enough to hold in the hand and it is totally manual, requiring no batteries or other outside power source to use.

For the tests on the ISS, the device won’t have any live cells inside. Instead, it’s carrying fluorescent microparticles which take the place of cells for later observation. The primary objective of these experiments is to test the print capability of the device in microgravity and compare it to performance in Earth gravity.

Taking this technology into space allows researchers to understand the way tissue layers work together in microgravity, which might be fundamentally different to the way they operate here at home.

The findings will not only inform the future of this technology in space but will also provide insight which might be useful on the ground. While the allure of bioprinting technology for space-based missions is immense, this technology will likely do most of its work here on Earth.

Using bioprinted skin patches for wound healing offers a decreased risk of rejection, because the patch itself will contain cells from the target patient. A handheld device like the Bioprint FirstAid also opens up treatment into additional scenarios. Doctors and emergency response personnel could take the device to where the patients are, without necessarily needing them in a hospital setting.

The benefit to space travel shouldn’t be understated, however. Astronauts in space heal differently than they do on Earth. Low gravity is known to increase the time needed for healing injuries, scientists are hoping bioprinting might help bridge the gap in the event of injury during long-duration space missions when traditional medical intervention isn’t readily available.

NASA has made no secret of their intent to return humans to the Moon and complete longer duration missions to Mars and elsewhere. Other organizations including the ESA, DLR, and SpaceX will likely also have their hands in exploring the solar system; developing systems for more readily treating injuries in space will likely become critical as our time spent in space increases.

If there’s one thing we’ve learned from our space exploration efforts, it’s that things go wrong. It takes a thick skin to be an astronaut, it can’t hurt to make it a little thicker.