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NASA Will Announce Winners of Challenge to Engineer Human Tissue


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During a live event on June 9, 2021, NASA will announce the first- and second-place winners of the Vascular Tissue Challenge, a prize competition to grow and sustain functioning tissue that could aid in deep space exploration. Eleven teams that include a diverse network of experts in tissue engineering, microgravity research, and regenerative medicine, as well as promising startups in the bioprinting field, compete for a $500,000 total prize purse to be divided among the first three projects to successfully create thick, metabolically functional human vascularized organ tissue in vitro in a controlled Earth environment.

Part of NASA’s Centennial Challenges Program, the competition’s intended outcome is to increase the pace of bioengineering innovations and enable the growth of new tissues that could one day benefit the development of organ analogs, or models, used to study deep space environmental effects, such as radiation. According to NASA, studying these reactions will help create ways to mitigate the negative impact of space travel on humans during long-duration, deep space missions. Alternatively, on Earth, the vascularized tissue could be used in pharmaceutical testing or disease modeling and could even accelerate new research and development in the field of organ transplants.

“The humans who will be our deep space pioneers are our most important resource on the Journey to Mars and beyond,” said Steve Jurczyk, associate administrator for NASA’s Space Technology Mission Directorate in Washington. “The outcome of this challenge has the potential to revolutionize healthcare on Earth, and could become part of an important set of tools used to minimize the negative effects of deep space on our future explorers.”

A stack of active tissue culture flasks in a temperature-controlled compartment. Image courtesy of NASA.

As part of the competition, participants had to create human vascularized tissues for an organ – like the heart, lung, liver, or kidney – that is more than 0.39 inches (1 centimeter) thick and can maintain more than 85% survival of the required cells throughout a 30-day trial period. The teams had to demonstrate three successful trials with at least a 75% success rate to win an award. In addition to the laboratory trials, they also had to submit a proposal that details how they would further advance some aspect of their research through a microgravity experiment conducted on the International Space Station (ISS) U.S. National Laboratory.

The following groups are competing to make bioengineered tissue a genuine possibility for the future:

  1. Team Asimov led by Melanie Matheu, the CEO, and Founder of organ bioprinting startup Prellis Biologics.
  2. Team Bioprinter spearheaded by Biomedical Engineering Professor Kunal Mitra from the Florida Institute of Technology.
  3. Team Braveheart from the Johns Hopkins Medical Institute in Maryland led by Cecilia Liu.
  4. Team Cellink is directed by biotechnology expert Stephanie Stroll and researchers from bioconvergence and bioprinting pioneering startup Cellink.
  5. Team Iviva Medica is headed by Harald Ott, a cardiothoracic surgeon at the Massachusetts General Hospital and founder of the Ott Laboratory for Organ Engineering and Regeneration at Harvard University.
  6. Team Miromatrix led by CEO and Founder of biologic-based therapeutics company Miromatrix and cell biology expert Jeff Ross.
  7. Team Mpact Bioengineering with lead Researcher and Director John P. Fisher of the Center for Engineering Complex Tissues at the University of Maryland.
  8. Team Flow Maize and Blue, headed by Pediatric Cardiac Surgeon at the University of Michigan Health System Ming-Sing Si.
  9. Team ITeams following the lead of bioengineering expert and Orthopaedic Surgery Professor at Stanford University Peter Yang.
  10. Team Penn State University led by Hartz Family Associate Professor of Engineering at Penn State University, Ibrahim Ozbolat.
  11. Team Techshot Inc. follows Chief Scientist at 3D biofabrication company Techshot, Eugene Boland.
  12. Team Vital Organs has vascularization expert and Rice University Bioengineering Professor Jordan Miller as the leading researcher.
  13. Team WFirm Bioprinting is supervised by Associate Professor at Wake Forest Institute for Regenerative Medicine (WFIRM) Sang Jin Lee.
  14. Team Winston, also from WFIRM, is led by WFIRM’s Chief Operations Program Officer James Yoo and renowned bioprinting expert Anthony Atala.

Many of the aforementioned researchers and companies have dedicated years to perfecting their 3D bioprinting techniques, bioinks, and bioprinting hardware, so most participating teams have likely leveraged biofabrication technologies to create the vascularized tissues demanded by the NASA challenge. Cellink, Prellis Biologics, and Techshot have already created successful products that are currently being commercialized for tissue development worldwide. Techshot has even taken its technology one step further by sending two platforms, the 3D BioFabrication Facility (BFF) and the Techshot ADvanced Space Experiment Processor (ADSEP), to the ISS, where they are being used as the first-ever systems capable of manufacturing human tissue in orbital microgravity.

Similarly, experts like Miller, Lee, and Ozbolat are well known for advancing tissue engineering and bioprinting. Miller and his colleagues have focused on creating exquisitely entangled vascular networks that mimic the body’s natural passageways for blood, air, lymph, and other vital fluids. Ozbolat is leveraging bioprinting technology to heal skin and bones, while Lee works closely with pioneering American bioengineer Anthony Atala to create biomaterial systems that improve cellular interactions.

All of the teams have extensive knowledge in the biofabrication realm, so the competition will be fierce. However, the first team to demonstrate tissue survival and function for the duration of a 30-day trial will receive $300,000, while the two runner-ups that complete trials will win $100,000 each. Before the prize winners are announced, all the expert teams will answer questions about their tissue engineering techniques during a special episode of NASA Science Live, a popular online broadcast that takes viewers behind the scenes to explore the secrets of the universe.

The episode will air at 3:00 PM Eastern Time on NASA Television, the NASA app, the agency’s website, NASA social media platforms, and YouTube channels, where viewers can submit questions using #AskNASA. Afterward, at 4:30 PM Eastern time, the final winners will be announced.

Vascular image. Image courtesy of NASA.

Update: On June 9, 2021, NASA announced two teams of scientists from WFIRM in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, to have won the first and second place in its Vascular Tissue Challenge. Competing as teams Winston and WFIRM, each used a different approach to create lab-grown human liver tissues strong enough to survive and function in ways similar to those inside the human body.

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