Five Belgian companies and research centres are joining forces in the AstroCardia project. With that project, they are making it their mission to improve heart health. And they are doing so in a very special place: in space. This is where they are aiming to better study heart ageing and create a suitable research model for the heart. To do so, they developed an artificial miniature heart and associated circulatory system using 3D bioprinting. This so-called ‘heart-on-a-chip’ will be sent to the International Space Station (ISS) in 2025.
Cardiovascular disease is one of the most common causes of death in the world. The risk of cardiovascular disease increases as we age. However, researchers are still partly in the dark as to why this is so. Science lacks any faithful models for revealing the underlying biological processes. Five Belgian partners – Space Applications Services, SCK CEN, QbD Group, BIO INX and Antleron – are now throwing their knowledge and expertise into the fray to develop a suitable study model. And they are doing so in an environment where scientists can better investigate heart ageing: space.
‘Heart-on-a-chip’: a 3D bioprinted heart model
To examine a living human heart and all the processes associated with it in depth is practically impossible. That was why the researchers will bioprint a miniature heart on a chip and build an artificial circulatory system around it.
This ‘heart-on-a-chip’ is a chip of a few square millimetres on which heart muscle cells are printed. The ‘ink’ consists of biomaterials and stem cells that can develop into any possible cell in the body. The cells begin to divide and organise themselves into a developing human heart model – known as a cardiac organoid. An artificial circulatory system feeds that heart with stimuli, oxygen and nutrients until it matures and begins to beat. The scientists can conduct tests on it. The main test will be conducted in 2025, onboard the International Space Station.
This is when the heart-on-a-chip devices will be launched to space and kept alive for at least six weeks. During this period, they will be monitored in real time. Once the devices returned to Earth, researchers from the company QbD and the nuclear research centre SCK CEN will analyse them in detail. With this space experiment, the partners hope to investigate whether the exposure of the developed cardiovascular system to the space environment can work as a scientific model of heart ageing.
The nuclear research centre is not at its experimental stage with this project. It has long studied the effect of radiation on cardiac ageing and has done so in the context of both radiotherapy and space exploration.
To 3D bioprint a miniature heart model into a chip, specialist material is an absolute must. And that includes a 3D bioprinter with micrometric precision, living stem cells and ‘bio-ink’. Those stem cells developing into a mini organ must be printable and held together. For this, the consortium can count on the expertise of Belgian start-up BIO INX.
The artificial circulatory system will become a technological marvel, as soon as it is developed by the AstroCardia partners, along with the R&D company Antleron.
The project is receiving financial support from VLAIO as ICON intercluster (Medvia & Flanders Space) under grant agreement number HBC.2022.0569.
Multimedia & contact details
- Hilde Stenuit (Space Applications Services) – Hilde.Stenuit@spaceapplications.com – +32 (0)2 721 54 84
- Wendy De Groote (SCK CEN) – firstname.lastname@example.org – +32 (0) 14 33 21 49
- Martijn Reniers (QbD Group) – email@example.com – + 32 (0) 488 60 03 34
- Jasper Van Hoorick (BIO INX) – firstname.lastname@example.org – +32 (0) 499 16 98 94
- Filip Donvil (Antleron) – email@example.com – +32 (0)16 75 13 71