Imagine 3D-printing without gravity: the vision of 3D-printing and biomanufacturing in space is already reality. We talked to Ken Savin, CSO from Redwire Corp. (NYSE:RDW) about his projects bringing additive manufacturing into space and what makes them so exciting besides the fact, that the need for support structures can definitely stay on earth.
Redwire develops mission-critical space solutions and components that are shaping space habitation, in-space production, and the future of space exploration. The American based company is working on accelerating humanity’s expansion into space by delivering reliable, economical, and sustainable infrastructure for future generations.
"Gravity is such a dominant force and there is no other way to get prolonged exposure to an environment without it that when you can access microgravity, it opens up new possibilities and reveals aspects of the world that are otherwise difficult or impossible to see.”
Ken Savin, CSO Redwire
Why we need bioprinting in space
IV: “Welcome Ken. We want to know all about this topic and start right away with the question: Why do we need bioprinting in space?”
Ken Savin: “Hello and thanks for having me. The reason we do these things in space is that when gravity is removed the systems behave differently and often this is an advantage. Cells are more spherical and behave differently. Stem cells tend to retain their “stemness” longer. Organoids, small clumps of cells that act as a system, like a tiny version of an organ, are spherical, which means not pressed flat by gravity, and act more like an organ.”
IV: “So what is the advantage of 3D-printing in space?”
KS: “3D-printing can have advantages in research. Certain printed systems can, for example, make good models for certain human disease states and physiological processes. Space based systems can retain their shape and be a more similar model for the human condition.”
IV: “Is there anything particular you need to consider when printing in space?”
KS: “When you print in space you must consider the harsh environment. That can be really challenging. There are different products that can be made from the biological species in space. Microgravity provides a way to see factors involved in chemistry, physics, and biology that are hidden by the cloak of gravity. Gravity is such a dominant force and there is no other way to get prolonged exposure to an environment without it that when you can access microgravity, it opens up new possibilities and reveals aspects of the world that are otherwise difficult or impossible to see.”
IV: “What has already been done within these experiments?”
KS: “We used the first couple of experiments to put BFF (The 3D BioFabrication Facility) through its paces, testing the functionality of the hardware itself and validating the concept of operations we developed pre-launch. These preliminary efforts were valuable for refining procedures for what we do on our end at our own Payload Operations Control Center during BFF operations. These new investigations will be able to leverage the new capabilities of BFF, in particular the ability to control the temperature of the printheads. Many of the most physiologically relevant bioinks are also temperature sensitive, some even end up solidifying at higher temperatures, but with BFF’s new cooled printheads, we no longer need to take that into consideration when developing new bioink formulations. These investigations will use new formulations that were not possible in the previous BFF configuration.”
"I have found the astronauts, some of whom are professional scientists and some not, to be extremely capable individuals who are good at seeing the reason for doing things and thus able to think through challenging processes and get things done."
IV: “Can you tell us about the differences between what’s possible in labs versus the ideas in space.”
KS: “When we move to translate activities from terrestrial labs to a space-based platform there are generally three things to focus on:
First: What is the experimental setup used on the ground and how do we build a system that can mimic it in space? Often the system used on the ground is not directly translatable to the microgravity environment. Techniques we take for granted, like adding a solution to a vial filled with powder, become a difficult process to execute requiring special hardware and new operations.
Second: Safety is a key element of any work performed on a space-based platform. Considerations on the handling of materials, disposal, and exposing astronauts to needles or glass fragments are all considerations for any experiment. There are glove boxes on the station but no fume hoods. So sealed systems are often used with little astronaut involvement to avoid challenges of exposure. As part of the “safety plan” we must also consider the safety of the systems that keep the astronauts alive."
IV: “Is there an illustrative example of such safety-plans in space?”
KS: “There was a case where a new piece of equipment was brought on station and to keep it nice and shiny, it was rubbed down with an anti-oxidant so the metal would not rust and the tubing would not dry out and crack. The anti-oxidant was safe for people, but it volatilized, got into the air, and then into the water supply. The water reclamation system depends upon an electro-oxidizer to help clean the water and the anti-oxidant deactivated that system. The water started to show the effects as organics normally removed were increasing in concentration and the system was shut down. It took weeks to figure out what happened, replace/repair the systems, and get it all backup and running. There are teams of people who look for these types of systems/materials conflicts and we try to stick to materials we know are safe and approved, but in some cases, the research requires us to try new things.”
IV: “When talking about safety it can be exceptionally scary considering that being an astronaut you can’t run away in case of an emergency. It is vital to work those problems out before going to space I guess. Is there a further point you need to consider?”
KS: “Yes, this is the third point: A majority of us will not be able to run our own experiments in space, but that is today's world, them may change over time.
So, who will run your study? You need to train them (or more likely, train the people who train them) to do work you have been learning to do for years and techniques you perfected. The astronauts may also not be scientists at all, have many projects to do over the six months they have been on station, and are trying to do the work in microgravity! Providing videos for them to watch right before they do the experiment, providing detailed instructions and color-coded visual aids are helpful and, in some cases, real-time video communication with the science team on the ground is possible. I have found the astronauts, some of whom are professional scientists and some not, to be extremely capable individuals who are good at seeing the reason for doing things and thus able to think through challenging processes and get thigs done.
NASA Astronaut Kathleen Rubins ran a few of the studies my team sent up when I was an investigator, and she did a great job."
“Biofabrication has lots of potentials. For me, the big goal we can shoot for now and realize within five years is a set of reliable tissue models for testing in the pharmaceutical, agriculture, cosmetics, and food industries."
IV: “We got an understanding of the running projects and 3D-printing experiments. Now I am curious to know which materials have been used and why.”
KS: “The meniscus print we did earlier was acellular, i.e., it only contained the cartilage scaffolding, without living human cells. This next meniscus print, again for the Geneva Foundation/4DBIO3 program at Uniform Services University, will contain both the cartilage and living cells (launching Fall 2022). We also printed cardiovascular tissue and that cardiac experiment was for our own internal Redwire biomanufacturing program study.
Once printed, the tissue construct will need culture time to mature into a more tissue-like state. This takes time, and temperature control for everything to “gel up”. This could be days, weeks, or even a couple of months. Once the system is firm, we can bring it down and expect it to hold its shape and perform like a small piece of tissue.”
IV: “That’s a good insight into the previous work and materials used, which now brings me to my next question: What is the potential for biofabrication/biotech in space?”
KS: “Biofabrication can be applied in several ways that can bring significant value. For me, the big goal we can shoot for now and realize within five years is a set of reliable tissue models for testing in the pharmaceutical, agriculture, cosmetics, and food industries. One great example is testing for toxicity in the pharmaceutical industry. This is done with in-vitro models but still depends heavily upon animal studies."
IV: “Wouldn’t it be possible to get toxicity tested without animal testing?”
KS: “I do not think we will get away from animal testing completely (at least in the next 5-10 years) but I see advantages to going to tissue models. Not only would they provide a more controllable/reproducible system, but you also eliminate costs associated with animal sourcing, housing, and veterinary care. Not to mention that the cells are human, a better analog for whole people. The FDA (US Food and Drug Administration) is investing in programs to move to tissue chip systems to replace animal studies and if these systems can be made through access to space or made better, then it is worth the effort and will hopefully also be worth the expense.”
"Products and services around Stem cell production and research, organoid development and tissue chip technology and applications as well as simple tissue constructs for research are all developments that will come into play on the path to organ therapies."
IV: “What a pleasant prospect regarding the topic of sustainability. What is the ultimate goal of bioprinting in space?”
KS: “For us, the long-term plan is organ production for transplant. But that is really a long time away and technically beyond us at this point. There are milestones along the way that represent not only significant technical accomplishments and stepping stones toward bigger breakthroughs but also have value in the form of services and products that can be generated as a result. Products and services around stem cell production and research, organoid development and tissue chip technology and applications as well as simple tissue constructs for research are all developments that will come into play on the path to organ therapies.”
"That is probably the biggest challenge to the program right now. Getting the right people to pick the flag and lead programs toward significant goals using the best technology and technique available.”
IV: “To realize that vision of biotechnology in space, what has to be done?”
KS: “Like most things, it is going to take a lot of money and other resources. But it is also going to require great minds to come up with the challenges and methods to overcome them. That is probably the biggest challenge to the program right now. Getting the right people to pick up the flag and lead programs toward significant goals using the best technology and technique available."
IV: “Thank you so much for talking about bioprinting in space with us. What a futuristic topic. We wish you all the best for your projects. In-Vision is able to provide high-end technology for biomanufacturing requirements. We are always happy to talk about any special solutions to demanding projects like these. Don’t hesitate to get in touch with us!”