Space. The Final Frontier. Not a human friendly environment. Star Trek voyagers didn’t have to worry about injuries in space. They had a miraculous medical lab. We may not have that medical lab yet, but we’re getting there. The experiments may be small today, but someday we may have organ farms in space.
Yes, we’ve learned a lot about humans living in space during the past fifty-nine years. Unfortunately, one thing we’ve learned is that space changes a person physiologically. Some of those changes are reversible. Some are not. But imagine if we could replace space-damaged organs. Organ farms in space may make human spaceflight a la Star Trek and Star Wars possible. But more than that, organs grown in space may help relieve multiple complications about organ transplants here on earth.
The Downside to Organ Transplants
Today, when a person needs a new kidney or liver or lung, they must get on a waiting list. The list of people needing organs (no matter which organ they need) is much longer than the list of donors. Years longer.
But being on the list doesn’t mean you’ll get an organ. Organs must be a good match to the recipient’s blood type, height, weight, and other medical factors. Distance between donor and recipient and size of the organ are also factors. (If you’re interested in more details on how the process for matching organ donor to recipient, visit the United Network for Organ Sharing.)
After healing from the surgery, the recipient’s body often sees the transplanted organ as a foreign tissue and tries to reject it. To prevent that, most organ recipients must be on anti-rejection drugs. These drugs have many unpleasant side effects. Some people are on those drugs for years.
Wake Forest Institute for Regenerative Medicine makes replacement parts out of the patient’s own tissues. Most of what they do is experimental, but they have successfully implanted lab-grown urinary bladders.
The first lab-grown organ was a human bladder more than ten years ago.
To create a bladder, they take a small piece of a patient’s bladder and separate muscle and urothelial cells. They put those two types of cells in lab dishes in a fluid that stimulates their growth. In about six weeks, they have enough cells for a bladder. Then they pour the muscle cells onto a collagen scaffold. Two days later, they coat the inside of the scaffold with the urothelial cells. After some time in an incubator, you have a new bladder.
It’s not an easy or quick process. And a bladder is a very simple organ. There are many organs we simply cannot grow in a lab. A heart or a kidney or a lung are much more complex.
3D Printed Organs
I mentioned 3D printed organs in my blog post about future medical treatments. Only we may not have to wait so long.
NASA is 3D Printing Human Organs Aboard the International Space Station. Rather, they’re printing organ tissue. Watch the video.
Someday they hope to grow the more complex organs such as hearts and lungs.
Advantages of 3D Printed Organs
There are many advantages to using 3D printed organs rather than donor organs. You can create an organ exactly the right size, you don’t have to be on a years-long waiting list (once it’s a viable process), and most of all, they can use your own stem cells. Your body will recognize any tissue made with your stem cells. No more fear of rejection!
But the reason we want to grow organs in space isn’t so we can create the science fiction trope, an organ farm in space. It’s because in microgravity, the cells can grow in 3 dimensions. Someday, we may print the more complex organs. Think of it no more donor organ rejection.
And if astronauts on a long-duration space voyage were to get sick and need an organ transplant, they could get replacement printed up in no time.
What the Future Holds
What if some day there is an organ farm in space? Would they make those organs available to all who need them? Or would those organs be so expensive only the very rich could afford them? Will replacement organs extend human life longer than the “average” lifespan? If it does, will those organ recipients be immortal? How many organ replacements should one person be allowed? What the future holds is unknowable, but perhaps we should give some thought to the consequences of an organ farm in space.