The current International Space Station (ISS) method for dealing with medical emergencies is to return astronauts to Earth as soon as possible. As a plan A it’s obviously incredibly difficult, expensive and unpredictable to say the least, and as missions are set to become longer as we reach out to planets like Mars and beyond it will become increasingly impractical – or even impossible.

To try to deal with medical issues as they occur in space NASA has awarded Copper 3D funding to test 3D printing of medical devices using its antibacterial material, Plactive, on the ISS. Copper 3D’s medical devices aim to address health issues and injuries that are of particular concern to astronauts on long-term space missions.

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One example is common hand injuries such as mallet finger, which affect the tendons and reduce an astronaut’s ability to carry out everyday tasks.

Other health issues include, as noted by Copper 3D’s CMO and co-founder Daniel Martínez, “Immune System Dysregulation”, which research has shown astronauts suffer with while on space missions for longer than six months. “The immune system begins to weaken progressively and to act in different ways from how it works on Earth; [meaning] astronauts [are] very prone to get sick and to become easily infected.”

Martínez also notes that “studies have shown that the bacterial strain of methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus shows greater resistance to antibiotics under microgravity or Zero-G conditions,” which could mean antibiotics could become less effective during space flight.

Similarly, researchers from NASA’s Johnson Space Center found dormant herpes viruses reactivate during spaceflight as it causes immune cells to become less effective. This viral reactivation increases in magnitude, frequency and duration as space missions lengthen.

Plactive prevents contamination from microbes

Martínez notes “there is a critical need for preventive countermeasures to mitigate microbial risks during these long-term space missions,” and Copper 3D believes anti-bacterial materials, such as its Plactive, are a solution.

Plactive is an antibacterial nanocomposite created by “combining the base material with an additive that is highly effective in microbial elimination and is based on copper nanoparticles and other carrier elements and enhancers.”

Importantly, Plactive has active properties, making it “capable of actively eliminating microorganisms potentially dangerous to the health of astronauts.”

Plactive’s antibacterial properties have been validated by studies in microbiology laboratories and on war veteran amputees. The material successfully eliminated more than 99.99% of fungi, viruses and bacteria it came into contact with.

No need for sterilisation when 3D printing devices in space

Copper 3D hopes that manufacturing Plactive-based medical devices, particularly prosthetics, in space using 3D printing will provide a solution to current issues regarding sterilising devices, which have been printed on Earth for use on space missions, without compromising the antibacterial properties of the device.

Lead scientist and assistant professor at the University of Nebraska Omaha’s Department of Biomechanics Dr Jorge Zuniga told Compelo that “the medical devices produced with Plactive in micro-gravity maintain the same antibacterial properties as they exhibit on earth.”

He continued: “It is possible that the development of antimicrobial materials with higher strength and stiffness would provide the opportunities to explore the development of durable antimicrobial surgical tools and prevent infections.”

3D printing the devices on the ISS also means that there is no need for the station to carry a large supply of all the various medical devices astronauts may need. “Access to customized medical applications, parts or medical instruments, [as well as] elements for emergency treatment and rapid wound closure” and “limited space within the ISS” were noted by Martínez as other challenges of the space environment.