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Astronauts test bioprinted bandages made from human skin

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

Here on Earth, if you get injured, you have access to a world worth of infrastructure, including over-the-counter medicine and health systems. In space, if you get a flesh wound, your crew members may hear you scream, but they have limited ways to help. An experiment by the German Space Agency (DLR) hopes to solve this problem with bioprinted bandages made by an astronaut's own cells.

SpaceXs 24th commercial resupply mission to the International Space Station, launched in late 2021, resulted in a handheld device known as the Bioprint FirstAid Handheld Bioprinter, or abbreviated Bioprint FirstAid.

The device is designed to keep cells from astronauts or terrestrial patients infused in a bio-ink. In the event of an injury, Bioprint FirstAid will be used to apply a bandage to the injury site in near real time. The bio-ink is mixed with two fast-curing gels and will create a coating that resembles plaster.

Pre-existing technologies to create similar structures involved bulky machines and required additional time for the patches to mature. Bioprint FirstAid has the advantage of being small enough to hold in your hand, and it is completely manual and requires no batteries or other external power source to use.

For the tests on the ISS, the device will have no living cells inside. Instead, it carries fluorescent microparticles, which take the place of cells for later observation. The primary purpose of these experiments is to test the device's print capacity in microgravity and compare it with performance in the earth's gravity.

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

The results will not only inform about the future of this technology in space, but will also provide insights that can be useful on the spot. While the attraction of bioprint technology to space-based missions is enormous, this technology is likely to do most of its work here on Earth.

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

However, the benefit of space travel should not be underestimated. Astronauts in space heal differently than they do on Earth. Low gravity is known to increase the time needed to heal injuries, scientists hope bioprint can help bridge the gap in the event of injury during prolonged space missions when traditional medical intervention is not readily available.

NASA has made no secret of its intention to return humans to the Moon and complete longer missions to Mars and elsewhere. Other organizations including ESA, DLR and SpaceX are also likely to have their hands in exploring the solar system; Developing systems to more easily treat damage in space is likely to become critical as our time spent in space increases.

If there is one thing we have learned from our exploration of space, it is that things go wrong. It takes a thick skin to be an astronaut, it can not hurt to make it a little thicker.

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