From Mars Expedition to Healthcare 3D Printing – Pondering after Elon Musk’s Presentation on Sept 27th, 2016 Part 2: “Zero-G Game and Pizza”

Photo credit: NASA
This series of blogs was originally inspired by Elon Musk’s recent Mars speech. Although Elon and his team at SpaceX may very well succeed in sending pieces of electronics and team of robots to Mars successfully within the claimed timeframe, I think it is crucial to re-think space medicine to make manned “Mars expedition” an actually meaningful goal.
Part 1 of this series discusses why it is important to think about space expedition seriously for humanity’s future, and explains how 3D printing in healthcare carries equally paramount weight for our future and for this ambitious goal.
While few of us had the opportunity to space travel in their lifetime (me included), it is clear to most that the major healthcare challenges in space traveling are the following based on our past experiences: [Ref 1-4]
a.    Negative effects on human body in Microgravity
b.    Spacecraft as a highly confined and controlled chamber
c.    Limited resources for medical care and recovery onboard
d.    Lack of scientific evidence on the effect of long duration inflight human survival and morbidity
Figure 1 is a compiled graph on the medical conditions encountered during in flight medical events from 1981 to 1998 for the American astronauts (STS1-STS89).  Mind you that these incidences happened on super healthy individuals who had the most positive attitude towards space exploration when signed up for the adventure.
Therefore, Elon’s conclusions that a) Mars trip will be deadly (based on current space healthcare technologies), and b) he himself would not partake the trip are 100% correct.
Me, neither.
Thus, before we can seriously think about “Zero-g pizza and games”, let’s seriously think about how 3D printing (and bioprinting) can potentially save lives and help out with challenges facing human expedition to the deep space: [Ref 5]
a.    3D printing allows for significantly increased supply in missing, damaged, and out-of-date parts inflight. Currently, even for ISS, it takes months to supply these parts. Besides the cost to produce and ship, in medical situations, missing parts can be deadly in a confined chamber like a spaceship. Having digital manufacture onboard, the crew will not only have on-demand medical equipment (from forceps to robotic parts) in a timely fashion; they will also have the most up-to-date equipment from the Earth control station as their long journey continues. The combination of telemedicine/remote diagnosis and digital manufacture will prove crucial to keep a sizable crew alive to destination.
b.    3D printing will improve onboard nutrition. Can you imaging eating pizza or potatoes for 30 days? Or anything for 30 days or longer? With an onboard food 3D-printer, the crew can enjoy a much larger selection of on-demand foods that will meet the nutrition requirements, not only depending on where they are during the journey but also depending on the crew’s variable health conditions at a specific point in time during the journey.
c.    3D printing and bioprinting will allow for more space medical research. The lack of biomedical research in space is evident and is a major barrier to a true human expedition into the deep space. (Who in their right minds want to go on a 100% deadly adventure?) However, with the increasingly available 3D printing/bioprinting technologies, having human like tissues and simulation biological devices such as “Organ-on-a Chip” [Ref 6]will allow for more space biomedical research at significant lower human risk and cost.
d.    Bioprinting may allow for direct inflight wound care and beyond. Lead by companies such as Organovo, direct tissue repair and organ replacement using bioprinting are not just excerpts from science fictions but tangible solutions to humanity in the next few decades. In combination with other areas of “precision medicine”, 3D printing/bioprinting will make Mars colonization a reality for us humans, and not just robots.
Join 3DHEALS 2017 Global Conference for more discussions on Healthcare 3D Printing at UCSF Mission Bay Campus.
References :

  1. “Space Medicine”
  2.  “Space Medicine”
  3. 6 Ways Medicine in Space is Completely Different from on Earty.
  4. Aerospace Medicine.
  6. Organ-on-a-Chip