NASA is getting closer to printing artificial organs in space


MIT Technology Review

In America, at least 17 people die waiting for an organ transplant every day. But instead of waiting for a donor to die, what if we could one day grow our own organs?

Last week, six years after NASA announced its Vascular Tissue Challenge, a competition designed to accelerate research that could one day lead to artificial organs, the agency named two winning teams. The challenge required the teams to create thick, vascularized human organ tissue that could survive for 30 days.

The two teams named Winston and WFIRM, both from the Wake Forest Institute for Regenerative Medicine, used various 3D printing techniques to create laboratory-grown liver tissue that meets all of NASA’s requirements and maintains its function.

“We took two different approaches because when you look at tissue and vascularity, you see the body doing two things in particular,” says Anthony Atala, team leader at WFIRM and director of the institute.

The two approaches differ in the way vascularization – the way blood vessels form in the body – is achieved. One used tubular structures and the other sponge-like tissue structures to help deliver cellular nutrients and remove waste. According to Atala, the challenge was a hallmark of bioengineering as the liver, the body’s largest internal organ, is one of the most complex tissues to replicate due to the large number of functions it performs.

Liver tissue created by Team Winston for NASA’s Vascular Tissue Challenge.


“When the competition came out six years ago, we knew we were trying to solve this problem on our own,” says Atala.

In addition to advancing regenerative medicine and making artificial organs easier to use for people who need a transplant, the project could one day support astronauts on future space missions.

The concept of tissue engineering has been around for more than 20 years, says Laura Niklason, professor of anesthesia and biomedical engineering at Yale, but the growing interest in space-based experiments is beginning to change the field. “With the world moving into private and commercial space travel now, the biological effects of low gravity are becoming increasingly important, and this is a great tool to understand.”

But the winning teams still have to overcome one of the biggest hurdles in tissue engineering: “Getting things to survive and maintain their function over a longer period of time is a real challenge,” says Andrea O’Connor, Head of Biomedical Engineering at University of Melbourne, who names this project, and others like it ambitious.

Armed with $ 300,000 in prize money, the winning team – Winston – will soon have the chance to send their research to the International Space Station, where similar organ research has already been carried out.

In 2019, astronaut Christina Koch activated the BioFabrication Facility (BFF), created by the Greenville, Indiana-based aerospace research firm Techshot, to print organic tissue in microgravity.

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