AstroCardia project sends miniature 3D printed heart to space for ageing research
Aug 05, 2023
“This research will be fully automated and can be operated remotely.”
by Oliver Johnson
31 August 2023
Five Belgian companies and research centres are joining forces in the AstroCardia project, which will involve a 3D bioprinted heart and circulatory system being sent into space to study heart health and ageing. Space Applications Services, SCK CEN: The Belgian Nuclear Research Centre, QbD Group, BIO INX and Antleron, are developing the artificial heart that will be sent to the International Space Station (ISS) in 2025.
The risk of cardiovascular disease increases as people age, and according to the AstroCardia project, researchers are still partly in the dark as to why this is so. The project says that science lacks any faithful models for revealing the underlying biological processes. According to AstroCardia, space is a better environment for scientists to investigate heart ageing.
“Our heart changes as we age. It slowly gets bigger and stiffer, the arteries calcify and the pumping power deteriorates. In space, factors such as stress microgravity and radiation cause those ageing processes to occur 20 times faster. So in space, we are speeding up time. And that gives us the unique opportunity to obtain research results that we simply cannot obtain here on Earth. The platform we will develop, will allow research into the mechanisms that drive cardiac ageing. This research will be fully automated and can be operated remotely,” said Hilde Stenuit, researcher at Space Applications Services.
To examine a living human heart and all the processes associated with it in depth is ‘practically impossible’ according to those involved in the project. This was the reasoning for the researchers aim to bioprint a miniature ‘heart-on-a-chip’ and build an artificial circulatory system around it.
The heart-on-a-chip is a chip of a few square millimetres, on which heart muscle cells are printed. The ‘ink’ consists of biomaterials and stem cells that can develop into any possible cell in the body according to the project. The cells begin to divide and organise themselves into a developing human heart model, known as a cardiac organoid.
AstroCardia Mission Control Centre
An artificial circulatory system feeds the heart with stimuli, oxygen, and nutrients until it matures and begins to beat, after which the scientists can begin to conduct tests on it. The main test will be conducted in 2025, onboard the International Space Station.
The test with the ISS will see heart-on-a-chip devices be launched into space and kept alive for at least six weeks. During this period, they will be monitored in real time, and once the devices are returned to Earth, researchers from QbD and the nuclear research centre SCK CEN will analyse them in detail.
With the space experiment, the project’s partners hope to investigate whether the exposure of the developed cardiovascular system to the space environment can work as a scientific model of heart ageing.
“The miniature heart, which is barely a chia seed’s size, faithfully mimics its human counterpart. The innovative technique would make it possible to better investigate cardiovascular diseases and test out some potential medicines. The biggest advantage is that we can personalise them by using stem cells from the patient themselves. As such, we can grow a miniature version of the patients heart. This would represent a great leap forward in personalised medicine. We are working towards that together!” said Dr. Kevin Tabury, SCK CEN radiobiology expert.
According to the project, the nuclear research centre is not at the experimental stage with AstroCardia, and has long studied the effects of radiation on cardiac ageing and has done so in the context of both radiotherapy and space exploration.
To 3D bioprint a miniature heart model into a chip, specialist material is an ‘absolute must’ says the AstroCardia team. This involves a 3D bioprinter with micrometric precision, living stemcells and ‘bio-ink’. The consortium of companies involved in the project rely on Belgian start-up BIO INXfor developing the stem cells into something that is printable.
Jasper van Hoorick, CEO at BIO INX said: “Compare it to bricklaying a wall. The stem cells are the bricks, the bio-ink, the mortar. Bio-ink is a kind of gel, which makes cells printable and in which they can survive during and after printing.”
“This project provides some valuable insights into the physiology of cardiac organoids. Therefore, it is very important that the chip on which we will print that miniature heart can handle the extreme conditions in space. We are honoured to be able to contribute to that with our knowledge,” said Jan Schrooten, CEO of Antleron.
Martijn Reniers, CIO at ObD added: “With this project, we are looking beyond the horizon. We are already concerned today with the problems society will face tomorrow. A healthy heart is important not only for those currently suffering from cardiovascular disease, but also for healthy astronauts exploring space.”
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by Oliver Johnson
31 August 2023
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Exhibit at the UK's definitive and most influential 3D printing and additive manufacturing event, TCT 3Sixty.AstroCardiaSpace Applications ServicesSCK CEN: The Belgian Nuclear Research CentreQbD GroupBIO INXAntleronRead more:Want to discuss? Join the conversation on the TCT Additive Manufacturing Network. Get your FREE print subscription to TCT Magazine.Exhibit at the UK's definitive and most influential 3D printing and additive manufacturing event, TCT 3Sixty.