The Potential of Biomaterials for Human Space Exploration

Biomaterials that aid human systems are a relatively new field.

Mars exploration
Photocreo Bednarek/stock.adobe.com

Long-term space travel is becoming increasingly likely as global organizations plan missions to the Moon, Mars, and beyond. Yet it's no secret that venturing beyond Earth's atmosphere wreaks havoc on the human body.

To achieve these ambitious goals and take us one step closer to establishing a revolutionary spacefaring economy, our latest crop of explorers will need all the help they can get. The key to their survival may lie in cutting-edge biomaterials.

What are biomaterials?

Biomaterials are objects, substances or surfaces interacting with a biological system. This term has many applications in medicine, where biomaterials are used to enhance, replace and repair limbs and bodily functions. These materials can be either natural or synthetic in origin. Many prosthetic legs, for instance, are composed primarily of aluminum or titanium.

A divergent definition of biomaterials emerged and was popularized in 1997. That's when Space Studies Board of the National Academies used the term to mean biologically-derived materials. Their goal was to explore the potential of growing materials off-planet to use in habitat construction. Today, scientists working with insect chitin or Mars regolith instead prefer terms such as bio-inspired manufacturing.

Biomaterials that aid human systems are a relatively new field. While Egyptians developed toe prosthetics from wood and leather before 600 B.C. and Romans constructed a bronze-coated wooden leg by 300 B.C., researchers only began to pursue such implementations seriously in the 1950s.

Today, the average person interacts with biomaterials so often—through such ubiquitous devices as contact lenses, dental implants and hip replacements—that they can seem unremarkable. But biomaterial advancements for space exploration inspire a renewed fascination with the field.

What applications for biomaterials in space do we already see?

Astronauts in the pinnacle of health can still experience major issues after relatively brief visits to the ISS. Despite regular exercise, living in a microgravity environment causes increased bone resorption, weakening astronauts and leaving them at greater risk for fractures when they land on a planet with stronger gravitational forces.

Challenges presented by other obstacles such as kidney stones, cosmic radiation poisoning and weight loss further complicate plans to establish an outpost on the Moon or Mars. Experts anticipate biomaterials alleviating some of these effects on travelers and streamlining surgeries that currently require highly-skilled medical professionals.

What is the outlook for 3-D bioprinting of body parts?

Prolonged time spent space traveling translates to dangerous bone loss and cartilage deterioration. The European Space Agency (ESA) has invested in multiple 3-D bioprinting technologies to ensure people heading far, far away from Earth can utilize specialized technology to combat these issues.

Instead of packing bulky medical supplies, 3-D bioprinting allows individuals to respond to medical emergencies as they arise. So far, scientists working with the ESA have managed to print skin and bone samples in conditions that mimic those aboard a spacecraft. For skin, they created a biomaterial combining blood plasma with methylcellulose and alginate found in plants and algae. For the bone sample, they added calcium phosphate bone cement.

Biomaterial applications also exist for cosmic radiation protection.

Because most trips to the ISS have only been for six to twelve months, cosmic radiation's effects have not yet been a major concern for astronauts. But a round-trip to Mars takes approximately 180 days.

Traditional materials for blocking radiation, such as lead and water, are unrealistically heavy for a long-term mission. But melanin, a naturally-occurring pigment that shields organisms from the sun's harmful rays, is a promising alternative to protect crews and keep weight down.

NASA may someday offer astronauts a bioengineered "sunblock" cream filled with selenomelanin. Tested by biochemists at Northwestern University, it combines the naturally occurring pigment with selenium, a metal that helps prevent cancer. When applied to skin cells, it rapidly absorbed and darkened the cells. In 2019, a similar biomaterial created with fungi was sent to the ISS for further testing.

Biomaterials can also allow for advanced wound dressing.

When an astronaut is hurt on the ISS, orbiting about 250 miles above Earth, they must currently be transported back to Earth quickly using a Soyuz spacecraft. "Within hours we can have someone in a care center back on Earth," explained one former flight surgeon for NASA. But if you want to go to the Moon or Mars, it becomes a pricier challenge.

In space, an open wound, however small, can obscure the vision of anyone trying to treat a bleeding victim. In addition, exposure to a spacecraft's interior invites all sorts of non-dissipated bacteria to infect a laceration. Injuries in microgravity also take longer to heal due to tissue degeneration and functional alterations of key bodily systems. Clotting, collagen production and revascularization all happen slower in space.

Several biomaterial dressings are under review for future missions, including electric bandages and the Bioprint FirstAid Handheld Printer. The former, already used by professional athletes, involves applying electroactive gauze to the wound to encourage a person's cells to bond faster. Using a bio-ink, the latter uses a patient's cells to generate skin bandages.

How will biomaterials affect life on Earth?

Onboard the ISS, astronauts working with biomaterials have conducted various regenerative medicine research. They've documented the effects of microgravity on stem cells and tested new tools for tissue engineering. Between spacewalks and equipment repairs, they cotinue investigating ways to accelerate wound healing.

Space's dangerous environment also has an upside: It can allow for accelerated study of common diseases like cancer and osteoporosis, leading to advances in drug manufacturing and other therapies. Printing human bone and cartilage in such an unforgiving environment can also translate to redundantly powerful methods for doing so back on Earth, where conditions are less fraught.

Eventually, researchers hope regenerative medicine experiments conducted in space will pave the way for fully-bioengineered organs. Biomaterials can potentially protect future space explorers, reducing the reliance on compatible donors for patients in dire need of transplants. As seen in other instances of spinoff technologies, space biomaterials will likely prompt commercial inventions that improve everyday life—from mending broken bones to reimagining the very clothes on our backs.

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