In America, at least 17 people per day die while waiting for an organ transplant. But instead of waiting for a donor to die, what if we could one day grow our own organs?
Last week, six years later NASA has announced its Vascular Tissue Challenge, a competition intended to speed up research that could one day lead to artificial organs, the agency has named two winning teams. The challenge required teams to create thick, vascularized human organ tissue that could survive for 30 days.
The two teams, named Winston and WFIRM, both from Wake Forest Institute for Regenerative Medicine, used different 3D printing techniques to create lab-grown liver tissue that would meet all NASA requirements and maintain function.
“We took two different approaches, because when you look at the tissue and the vascularity, you watch the body do two main things,” explains Antoine Atala, team leader for WFIRM and director of the institute.
The two approaches differ in the way vascularization – the way blood vessels form inside the body – is carried out. One used tubular structures and the other used spongy tissue structures to help deliver cellular nutrients and remove waste. According to Atala, the challenge was a hallmark of bioengineering because the liver, the body’s largest internal organ, is one of the most complex tissues to reproduce due to the high number of functions it performs.
“When the competition came out six years ago, we knew we had tried to solve this problem on our own,” says Atala.
In addition to advancing the field of regenerative medicine and making it easier to create artificial organs for humans who need transplants, the project could one day help astronauts on future deep space missions.
The concept of tissue engineering has been around for over 20 years, according to Laura Niklason, professor of anesthesia and biomedical engineering at Yale, but growing interest in space experimentation is beginning to transform the field. “Especially as the world is now looking at private and commercial space travel, the biological impacts of low gravity are going to become more and more important, and it’s a great tool to help understand that.”
But the winning teams have yet to overcome one of the biggest hurdles in tissue engineering: “Getting things to survive and maintain their function over a long period of time is really difficult,” says Andrea O’Connor, head of biomedical engineering at the University of Melbourne, who calls this project, and others as ambitious.
With a cash prize of $ 300,000, the winning team, Winston, will soon have the chance to send their research to the International Space Station, where similar research on organs has already taken place.
In 2019, Astronaut Christina Koch activated the BioFabrication Facility (BFF), which was created by the aerospace research company based in Greenville, Indiana. Techshot to print organic tissue in microgravity.