A consortium of five Belgian entities, including Space Applications Services, SCK CEN (Belgian nuclear research center), QbD Group, BIO INX, and Antleron, has embarked on an innovative endeavor known as the AstroCardia project. This groundbreaking initiative addresses one of the most pressing global health concerns—cardiovascular disease—by leveraging the capabilities of 3D bioprinting, microfluidic chips, and outer space.

The AstroCardia project revolves around the development of a “heart-on-a-chip,” a miniature cardiac model crafted using bioprinting techniques and bioink derived from stem cells. These miniature heart models are currently under development, with one scheduled for deployment to the International Space Station (ISS) in 2025, where it will undergo a minimum of six weeks of experimentation. The aim is to provide an innovative platform for studying heart aging and the potential applications of drug treatments.

The project follows a meticulously planned four-step process:

  1. Bioprinting of a miniature heart on Earth using bioink and living cells.
  2. Creation of an artificial blood system to nourish the bioprinted heart.
  3. Launching the heart model into space to expedite its aging process under the unique conditions of microgravity, stress, and radiation.
  4. Conducting remote tests on the aged heart to gain insights into its structure and test potential pharmaceutical interventions.

As researchers have observed, the aging process significantly impacts the heart, leading to increased stiffness, enlargement, and decreased pumping capacity. These age-related changes occur at an accelerated rate in space due to factors like microgravity, radiation exposure, and stress. The project capitalizes on this accelerated aging phenomenon in space to conduct research not feasible on Earth.

A pivotal aspect of the project is the development of the bioprinted heart-on-a-chip, where BIO INX plays a crucial role. BIO INX, a Belgian startup that originated as a spin-off from Ghent University, specializes in the development of pioneering bioinks. These bioinks serve as the essential “glue” that binds stem cells together, facilitating their growth into functional organoids. BIO INX has made significant strides in bioprinting and recently introduced a bioink tailored explicitly for 3D printing organs-on-chips, exemplifying its commitment to innovation.

The project enjoys support from various quarters, including the Flemish innovation agency VLAIO, which promotes interdisciplinary research. The heart-on-a-chip will be complemented by an artificial circulatory system developed in collaboration with Antleron, a biotech subsidiary of the QbD Group. This system will provide oxygen, stimuli, and nutrients to the bioprinted heart, mimicking the human cardiovascular system’s conditions.

Once in space, these heart-on-a-chip models will undergo real-time monitoring, followed by comprehensive analyses upon their return to Earth. The primary objective is to establish whether space exposure can serve as a valid scientific model for studying cardiac aging. In addition to advancing our understanding of heart aging and potential treatments for cardiovascular diseases, this pioneering venture also represents a vital step in ensuring the health of astronauts on extended space missions in the future.

By Impact Lab