Hoosier company attempts manufacturing human tissue in space  

As Conexus Indiana works to expand the breadth of what it means to be a manufacturer and highlight the evolving role that advanced technologies, including automation, electrification, the Internet of Things (IoT) and artificial intelligence, play in the industry, we will be highlighting stories from across Indiana.

An Indiana aerospace technology company is on a quest to manufacture human tissue with the first American 3D bioprinter in space.

Techshot, in partnership with Florida-based nScrypt, will launch the 3D BioFabrication Facility (BFF) into space on SpaceX CRS-18 to join the International Space Station (ISS) in July. The BFF was designed to manufacture human tissue in the microgravity of space as a solution for previous failed experiments, during which soft tissues collapsed under Earth’s gravity. The BFF will manufacture tissue with human stem cells, and then culture those cells to add strength for re-entry to Earth. Techshot will start with 3D printing smaller pieces of cardiac tissue over the course of the next five years, and if successful, anticipates beginning to attempt printing whole human organs by 2025.

Techshot is based in Greenville, IN, just across the Ohio River from Louisville, and was founded in 1988 by Purdue University alumnus John C. Vellinger and University of Evansville alumnus Mark Deuser. The two met while working on a project Vellinger had submitted to NASA that hypothesized it was possible for chicken eggs to survive in space within a special incubator. At that time Vellinger was still a freshman at Purdue and Deuser was an engineer for the project’s corporate sponsor Kentucky Fried Chicken. The project was designed, finished and loaded on to the Challenger in 1986, but was put on hold after disaster struck. While waiting for the experiment’s next chance, Deuser and Vellinger formed Techshot; the experiment launched a year later.

Today the company has moved past chicken embryos and onto real, living human tissue. While other biomedical manufacturers have had success 3D printing bones and cartilage on Earth, soft tissues like those that make up organs collapse under their own weight and Earth’s gravity. But if these materials are used in a microgravity environment like the ISS, Techshot believes the soft tissues will maintain their shape. Russian scientists have already 3D printed with cells in space but were unable to strengthen the material for re-entry to Earth. The BFF and Techshot’s solution to this problem is a state-of-the-art cell culturing system that will strengthen the material over time, turning it into a self-supporting tissue that will remain solid through re-entry and back in Earth’s gravity. The actual BFF printing process may take less than a day, but the strengthening process will take between 12 to 45 days.

The first phase of 3D printing for the BFF will include printing test samples of cardiac tissue. Once those samples are brought back down to Earth for viability testing, and if they are successful, the second phase will begin manufacturing heart patches for testing and regulatory examination, a process that could take up to ten years.

Indiana was a natural choice when considering where to base Techshot, said Rich Boling, Techshot’s vice president of corporate advancement.

“[Indiana is] producing some of the best graduates in the country from Purdue, IU, University of Evansville, Notre Dame,” Boling said. “[Techshot] would be nothing without people dedicated to their craft, and we find them right here in these universities.”

Boling also attributed Techshot’s success to the Indiana workforce culture.

“Indiana values building something from the ground up and laying down roots,” Boling said, “Not every state has programs to foster entrepreneurship…we’re grateful to be in this state and part of the Hoosier effort to make this the best place to live.”

If successful, the BFF has the potential to create many new possibilities in the medical community, including the eventual ability to manufacture human organs, reduce the chance of organ transplant rejection, create patient specific replacement tissues and organs, and provide hope to the more than 113,000 people on the organ transplant list.