We are probably many decades away from being able to build organs in the lab from scratch. A major hurdle is the fact that what we can produce doesn’t have the vascularization – blood vessels – we get in naturally grown organs. Without that, you can’t feed the cells if you make the tissue realistically thick.
To entice more research in the area, NASA put forward a $500,000 prize back in 2016 for the first three teams that could create “thick, metabolically-functional human vascularized organ tissue” in the lab. Five years later, there are two winners.
Both winners alight from the Wake Forest Institute for Regenerative Medicine (WFIRM) in Winston-Salem and were competing as Team Winston and Team WFIRM. They won, respectively, first place and second place. Third place, and the final $100,000, is currently being fought over by two other teams.
The teams demonstrated that their 3D-printed human tissues are capable of perfusion – the process in an organism that brings nutrients to cells and removes metabolic waste. They designed a thick tissue through which nutrients and oxygen can flow. It used gel-like molds over which the tissue is grown. The mold is then dissolved leaving the fake blood vessels in place.
“I cannot overstate what an impressive accomplishment this is. When NASA started this challenge in 2016, we weren’t sure there would be a winner,” Jim Reuter, NASA associate administrator for space technology, said in a statement. “It will be exceptional to hear about the first artificial organ transplant one day and think this novel NASA challenge might have played a small role in making it happen.”
Team Winston will now have the opportunity to send such an experiment to the International Space Station. There it could be used to study the effect of cosmic radiation or microgravity on human tissues, and maybe lead ways to counteract that.
"The value of an artificial tissue depends entirely on how well it mimics what happens in the body,” said Lynn Harper, challenge administrator at NASA’s Ames Research Center in California's Silicon Valley. “The requirements are precise and vary from organ to organ, making the task extremely exacting and complex. The research resulting from this NASA challenge represents a benchmark, a well-documented foundation to build the next advance upon.”
Space might also be crucial to future designs into vascularized tissues. Thanks to the microgravity environment, it could be easier to 3D print human tissues in space.