Whether’s it’s the birth of a new space tourism industry — or simply the ultimate game of one-upmanship — it seems like a new billionaire blasts off every week.

So it’s worth keeping in mind that there are actually important things to study in space. In particular, there’s vast potential for the kind of space-based manufacturing being studied by the University of Pittsburgh’s McGowan Institute for Regenerative Medicine, and the International Space Station National Laboratory, currently orbiting the Earth with scientists aboard.

The International Space Station Research and Development Conference 2021, which is taking place this week, includes a fireside chat with McGowan Institute Director William Wagner about the opportunities for biomanufacturing in space, particularly in the fields of tissue engineering and regenerative medicine. A preprint (not yet peer-reviewed) of their research was posted online this week.

So what is regenerative medicine, and why does it work well in space?

“A definition that I like is that regenerative medicine involves harnessing the body’s ability to heal itself,” says Wagner. That can include the use of stem cells or biomaterials and devices.

International Space Station. Photo courtesy of NASA.

Pittsburgh’s expertise in regenerative medicine can be traced back to Thomas Starzl.

“Dr. Starzl made Pittsburgh ground zero for organ transplantation and revolutionized care for patients in end-stage organ failure,” says Wagner. “This built a group of experts in Pittsburgh interested in how to manage patients with failing organs. Transplant is an attractive option, but given that there are limited donors and there are delays in availability — what about other approaches? This led to the development of the McGowan Institute, which initially focused on artificial organs (such as hearts), but broadened its mission to embrace regenerative medicine approaches.”

The advantage of studying this in space is because of how microgravity in low Earth orbit favorably affects biology, including a higher reproduction rate of stem cells. The conference illuminated several opportunities for space-based biomanufacturing research and development.

Photo courtesy of the International Space Station Research and Development Conference.

It’s a new space race, one that has vast implications for the future of medicine.

“I personally believe that the future will find engineers and life scientists harnessing microgravity phenomena to develop medical products,” says Wagner.

The McGowan Institute team in Pittsburgh has been working for two years to develop a roadmap for biomanufacturing in low Earth orbit.

“The number of launches into orbit has increased dramatically over the past several years, costs have plummeted and private enterprise is making its own investments … This capacity and cost reduction further opens up the ability for life science advancements,” says Wagner.