3D printed body parts, it may seem like a wild plotline straight out of a sci-fi movie, but with the news this week, that 3D bioprinting is now possible in space, I am going to talk you through some of the major developments in the weird and wonderful world of 3D printing body parts “bioprinting”.

In Zero-G

Russian astronauts successfully printed a mouse thyroid in space this week. The idea behind the project is to test the possibility of 3D printing body parts in zero-g. The team hopes to offer a way of treating astronauts on long-term missions. Never one to miss out, the Americans hope to follow suit next year with their own bioprinter.

3d printed body parts
Printing in zero-g Image link: Nasa

3D printing in zero gravity was successfully tested a while ago. NASA thinks it’s so great, that there is a whole section dedicated to it in the International Space Station, the Additive Manufacturing Facility, which is capable of 3D printing parts and tools in case of emergency.

3d printed body parts
Small and mighty. It might not look like much, but that tiny white, semi-circle on the table could revolutionize long-term space travel. Image link: Nasa

The 3D bioprinter printer dubbed “the Organaut”, is from Russia’s 3D Bioprinting Solutions laboratory who, down on earth, have already successfully 3D printed a mouse thyroid and then transplanted it into a living mouse. The Organaut was transported to the ISS on 3rd December, the second attempt to transport a 3D bioprinter into space. It has already reportedly, successfully 3D printed a mouse thyroid in space. The thyroid is rumored to be being transported back down to earth late December for analysis. The results will be announced early next year. Damn cool!

3D printed hearts

Meanwhile, over in America, Biolife4D has been working on 3D printed hearts. The process involves developing on the work of Japanese, Nobel prize winner Dr. Shinya Yamanaka. The man who pioneered a technique called Differentiation, a way of “reprogramming” adult cells to create Induced Pluripotent Stem Cells. In short: mock stem cells that can be transformed into any other cell in the body. This means that the cells come from a patient’s own body and there is no need for embryonic stem cells to be collected!

3d printed body parts
3D printed hearts, taking shape. Image link: Bio Life 4D

The company use an MRI scanner to form a 3D CAD model of an organ that is a perfect fit for the patient. The 3D printer then uses an “ink” made from nutrients, reprogrammed cells, and growth material and is then grown in a bioreactor.

3D printed Cornea

Over in the UK, a team at Newcastle University were able to print concentric circles in the shape of a cornea, in less than 10 minutes and then successfully grow the cells. They can print the shape tailored to perfectly fit the patient.

It is important to note that this is still years away from potentially being available to patients and it is still vitally important that people continue to donate corneal tissue for transplant as there is a shortage within the UK. – Dr Neil Ebenezer, director of research, policy and innovation at Fight for Sight.

3D printed bones

Back in the US, the clever folks at the University of Arizona, funded with a five-year, $2 million grant from the U.S. Department of Defense have been working on 3D printing technology to fix broken bones that are shattered beyond conventional repair methods. For example, explosions and heavy impacts. This is a particularly common injury among military men and women. With current technologies these injuries frequently result in amputation.

Image link: OPA UAHS Arizona

Patients often re-break the damaged bone area after surgeons try to repair it and the limb will eventually be amputated, There’s just no good way of regenerating or re-growing long bone segments right now. – Dr. Szivek


Dr. Szivek, the man heading up the project, is researching ways of 3D printing scaffolding with calcium particles and adult stem cells, constructed from MRI scans to perfectly match the patient. These 3D printed body parts will contain tiny chips that will allow scientists to monitor exercise levels. Evidence shows the exercise helps aid bone growth, so the team is excited to discover what the results are.

If successful, this technique may be rolled out to patients with bone cancer.

3D printed organ chips

The weird and wonderful world of Bio-printing doesn’t just stop at 3d printed body parts inside the body. Vegetarians of the world rejoice. At the University of California San Diego, a team has been working on bio-printed organ chips that can be used for drug studies. They have already build a 3D printed blood vessel network from an artificially designed CAD model. This could replace the need for animal testing.

The chip was printed in polyvinyl alcohol. The channels were then coated with endothelial cells (the cells inside blood vessels). Finally, they pumped a “culture media” through the vessels. The cells not only stay alive but continue to grow. This model was capable of keeping a breast cancer tumor alive outside the body for 3 weeks! They’ve also developed a, somewhat freaky, human gut in a chip. Most curiously, after 2 weeks, the cells in this chip began to adapt and morph on their own. Freaky!

3D printed body parts for training

Nevit CC BY-SA 3.0

Not all 3D printed organs beat. Huge leaps are being made with artificial 3D printed body parts for training purposes. The organs give trainee medical students the opportunity to slice and dice hyper-realistic body parts that move, bleed and look, just like the real thing!