The idea of manufacturing consumer-based products in outer space has intrigued companies for many years. For a variety of reasons, certain products seem to perform better when they are made in microgravity. A new science experiment being conducted by NASA and a biotech firm called LambdaVision wants to see if that also applies to the world of healthcare.
The duo is working to 3D print artificial retinas that can help restore vision to blind patients. NASA recently launched the experiment to the International Space Station (ISS).
NASA isn’t new to the idea of printing biomaterials in space. In fact, the space agency has partnered with other companies in the past to pursue it. In 2019, it worked with Techshot to 3D print human hearts. Earth’s gravity can cause the fragile network of vessels to collapse during the printing process. In space, that isn’t a problem.
The partnership with LambdaVision is a bit different. The startup is already able to reliably produce its artificial retinas here on Earth. However, it believes that printing them in space could make them even better. LambdaVision’s chief science officer, Jordan Greco, told Futurism, “While LambdaVision’s artificial retina can be effectively developed in labs on Earth, producing the artificial retina in low-Earth orbit, improves the homogeneity of the alternating protein and polymer layers, resulting in increased stability, performance, and optical quality of the multi-layer system.”
He adds, “These improvements could reduce the amount of materials required to produce the artificial retina, lower costs, and accelerate production time for future preclinical and clinical efforts.”
The experiment heading to the ISS is the first in a series that will determine if the approach is viable. LambdaVision plans to use the results to perfect its manufacturing process over the next three years. Then, it aims to produce the artificial retinas aboard the ISS.
“While our focus at this time is fully on our ability to restore meaningful sight to patients with retinitis pigmentosa and age-related macular degeneration, we are continually bolstered by the great potential of [low-Earth orbit] for broader implications across industries,” says Greco.
The idea of restoring people’s sight with artificial retinas printed in space sounds pretty crazy. However, it is well within reach thanks to many recent innovations in both space travel and 3D printing with biomaterials.
It also raises questions about how companies who want to manufacture things in space should be expected to do so. Obviously, the ISS can’t become a manufacturing hub for every company that wants to use it. The partnership between LambdaVision and NASA is occurring because the product promises to help people.
As more companies pursue microgravity manufacturing, it will be interesting to see if they try to develop space stations of their own or if pairing up with the ISS remains the norm. In the long run, the former is more likely. For now, though, NASA will likely allow companies to carry out small-scale tests and manufacturing trials aboard its orbiting lab.
LambdaVision’s work is something to keep an eye on (no pun intended) as it shifts its focus away from Earth.