The Vascular Tissue Challenge is a $500,000 prize purse to be divided among the first three teams who can successfully create thick, human vascularized organ tissue in an in-vitro environment while maintaining meta-bolic functionality similar to their in vivo native cells throughout a 30-day survival period.
NASA’s Centennial Challenges Program is sponsoring this prize to help advance research on human physiology, fundamental space biology, and medicine taking place both on the Earth and the ISS National Laboratory. Specifically, innovations may enable the growth of de novo tissues and organs on orbit which may address the risks related to traumatic bodily injury, improve general crew health, and enhance crew performance on future, long-duration missions.
Additionally, the Center for Advancement of Science in Space (CASIS) will be providing an additional “Innovations in Space” Award covering $200,000 in hardware costs and the launch costs to send one team’s vascular tissue experiment to the International Space Station that could further their research in the field.
It is expected that this Challenge will result in game changing technologies that will enable broad ranging new research leading to capabilities to repair and replace tissues and organs damaged from all kinds of impairments. The capability to vascularize tissues has been noted as the “holy grail” of tissue engineering.
Currently, research is limited to engineering thin-walled tissues and organs such as the trachea, esophagus, and bladder. The ability to get nutrients through a blood flow into thick metabolic tissues (such as organs, not just connective tissue like tendons and cartilage) to keep them alive and functioning for long periods of time has as of yet eluded researchers.
This challenge will revolutionize our ability to create thick, metabolic tissues that can be used to advance new research on thick-walled organs such as the heart, kidneys, lungs, or liver. It will enable new tissue assays and constructs that can be used in drug testing and disease modeling. It could open up a revolution in how we handle organ damage and impairment, on the Earth. NASA’s interests also include the use of those tissues for the study of environmental effects (like radiation) and testing of potential mitigation strategies needed for long term deep space missions.
Around the world, millions of people need replacement organs, and many die before finding a suitable donor. In the United States, the wait list has skyrocketed while the number of available organs has stayed relatively flat. Even those fortunate enough to find an organ in time face serious medical difficulties, often for the rest of their lives.
The growing field of regenerative medicine offers many potential solutions, but it is drastically underfunded compared to more established areas of medicine. The Vascular Tissue Challenge will enable incredible new research and development to advance the capabilities needed to significantly reduce the organ shortage.