Persistent knee problems could become a thing of the past thanks to artificial cartilage produced in space. Scientists at Zurich's federal institute of technology are investigating whether human tissues grown in a zero gravity environment function better.
The project is part of the research programme, which is planned by the European Space Agency for the International Space Station.
"It looks like the presence of gravity may have a bad influence on growth of tissues because the pulling force of gravity works against the formation of a good three - dimensional structure," Dr Augusto Cogoli, director of the space biology group in Zurich, told swissinfo.
"This is the hypothesis we want to test in zero gravity. Of course, we cannot reproduce zero gravity on Earth so a good deal of work is done on the ground with simulation machines."
Every year, tens of thousands of people suffer knee injuries as a result of over-strenuous exercise or sports accidents.
The ideal cure would be to replace the defective cartilage with new material having the same properties as human tissue, which is readily accepted by the immune system.
On Earth, scientists are not yet able to produce artificial cartilage for implantation because under the influence of gravity, human cells grow flat like a pancake, rather than in the form of a sugar lump from which the right shape can be modelled.
With the benefit of weightlessness, on the other hand, the necessary growth in all three directions might be achievable.
"At least as far as cartilage is concerned, the implants produced on Earth at present are not completely satisfactory and there are thousands of patients, young athletes and all the people who need such implants," said Cogoli.
Related work is taking place in other countries in Europe on human blood vessels and thyroid cells. Among other uses, such cultures could be used to test new treatments for cancer without risking harm to patients.
by Vincent Landon